Stephen King’s novel has had a bumpy road to the big screen, and whether it’s the result of studio interference, budgetary restrictions or simple misjudgment, Cell feels like a jarring combination of ideas, styles and horror tropes that never quite come together.
Author Clay Riddell (John Cusack) has just landed at Boston Airport when a cell phone signal turns everyone using their device into bloodthirsty monsters. Teaming up with transport worker Tom McCourt (Samuel L Jackson), Clay sets out to find his family, picking up teenaged Alice (Isabelle Furhman) and young Jordan (Owen Teague) along the way. However, the longer they stay alive, the more the horde is aware of them.
King’s novel had one hell of an opening before slipping into one of his more disposable horrors. Director Tod Williams does give his viewers a gory overture, but he seems to be much more interested in how these insane events are affecting the characters. This is admirable, but the script doesn’t really sell it as the best decision, with clunky dialogue and some suspect exposition.
There are moments where it’s quietly affecting, and it frequently takes a welcome turn into mad dark comedy, highlighted by on-the-nose musical choices (Anita Ward’s ‘Ring My Bell’, Frank Simes’ ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’). Notably, the sequence at Stacy Keach’s school in which they confront a football field of sleeping zombies is so bizarre it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
But when it assumes a straight face and goes into full-on zombie movie, Cell flounders. The action sequences are lacking, the Raggedy Man villain is simply not creepy, and it feels aimless as the group stumbles from stop to stop. Crucially, the connections between the characters never convince, so when Cell does want to hit you in the gut, it’s curiously unaffecting, although it is worth noting Furhman’s strong turn.
It’s not without its weird charms, but those moments are few and far between, and for the most part it’s gloomy and plodding.