Director: Tod Williams
Writer: Stephen King, Adam Alleca
Producer: Richard Saperstein, Michael Benaroya, Brian Witten, Shara Kay
Stars: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Owen Teague, Clark Sarullo, Anthony Reynolds, Erin Elizabeth Burns, Stacy Keach
Two men team up to survive when everyone in the world using a cellphone suddenly becomes part of a ravenous horde.
The giveaway clue that “Cell” is a “what do we do this?” movie isn’t in the 10-year saga of initial announcement to final delivery. It isn’t in the revolving door of writers and directors taking a crack at the project during that time. It isn’t even in the two years of casting or two years between filming in 2014 and dumping it onto VOD in 2016.
Even without behind-the-scenes knowledge of its beleaguered development, “Cell” tells you it is going to be “cinema by committee” trouble with opening credits consisting of logo animations for two USA distributors, four production companies, and an additional sales representative. From there, title cards list three co-producers, four producers, and a staggering 14 executive producers. How many disparate parts and people were necessary to finally stitch this thing into a releasable motion picture? From the look of things, at least one more.
Adapted from the same-named Stephen King novel, “Cell” involves the tired plotline of a put-upon man desperate to reunite with his family amid apocalyptic anarchy. It’s essentially a zombie outbreak film, though one where survivors are only mildly invested in actually saving their lives.
The story starts at Boston’s airport where, inexplicably, everyone using a cellphone suddenly turns into a “28 Days Later”-like Muppet flailing arms, flopping about, and screaming unintelligible howls of attack. The sequence is so silly, it includes Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman as one of the panicking passengers, because what’s the harm in adding a campy cameo to the long list of things taking you right out of the movie?
On a post-9/11 planet, it’s impossible to imagine a passive reaction to a chaotic eruption of gunfire, mass murder, frothing mouths, and cannibalism inside an airport terminal. Nevertheless, that’s exactly how John Cusack plays it as he stands nearly still wearing a look of nonplussed surprise instead of going ghost-white with horror, as if calmly considering, “I think I’ll see how this plays out.”
Helping Cusack navigate his path home is Samuel L. Jackson, similarly sleepy eyed over the possibility of a terrorist attack, chemical warfare, or viral infection of unknown origin. Rational responses to such a threat might include finding the nearest television to acquire information or seeking organized shelter in a designated safe zone. Not for these two. Jackson pours himself a glass of scotch and slices an apple with an attitude of, “guess we’re in a wee bit of a pickle, huh?”
Whether dispassionate acting or disinterested directing is the greater culprit, characters couldn’t care less about the end of the world. Performances are so casual, if you were to close your eyes and listen to dialogue alone, you’d swear you were hearing a half-speed rehearsal read-through where no one knew the camera was rolling.
“Cell” is bafflingly edited to within an inch of being incomprehensible. Exterior weather changes in places, but there is no sense of an actual timetable to the movie’s events. Maybe the story takes place over four days. Maybe 40. Screen time certainly isn’t spent with anyone long enough to give a damn about a single person’s death.
Transitions routinely resort to random insert shots of inconsequential value: a roasting hot dog, airport arrival boards, a toilet seat cover dispenser in a bathroom stall. Confusing cutting is then compounded by a handheld camera so excessively epileptic, even a “found footage” film would scream at the cinematographer to give it a rest.
“Cell” doesn’t know what to do with itself. Misplaced moments of situational humor land more horribly than the airplane exploding in a CGI crash capable of making a video game cutscene cringe. Digital smoke is also rendered so poorly, it’s a mystery why the movie insists on featuring it more than once. A ridiculous dance party interlude, a sound effect worthy of earplugs for when the afflicted are in heightened throes of their cellular trance, and a complete lack of urgency resulting in a total absence of tension. Every element is an opportunity for “Cell” to go out of its way to be annoying.
A legion of apocalyptic outbreak films already exists. More than one of those even involves cellular signals infecting phone users (“Pulse”). We also have the option of a more entertaining Stephen King adaptation starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson in “1408.” All of which begs the question, exactly what are we supposed to do with “Cell?”
Review Score: 25