Dir. Tod Williams
Written by Stephen King, Adam Alleca
Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, and Stacy Keach
|This poster actually makes the movie look kind of fun (though beware anything quoting a review with the attribution too small to see which raves "A refreshing throwback") but don't get your hopes up...|
|...This one is more indicative of the actual level of quality you'll be getting.|
CELL does not come with a backstory that would particularly inspire confidence. First announced in 2006 as Eli Roth’s follow-up to HOSTEL 2, Roth split with the studio over creative differences, the script was re-written at least once --eventually by King himself-- and it seems to have passed from producer to producer before finally signing up stars Cusack and Jackson and going into production, as near as I can tell, sometime around 2012 or 2013, after more than half a decade in development hell. According to the predictably unsourced trivia on IMBD, the film seems to have been finished in 2013, because it was being sold as a property at Cannes that year, apparently to such complete disinterest that it received not a single bid. By 2015, another distributor had picked it up, but a string of disastrous losses left them also unable to distribute it, and it sat in limbo for another year before Saban films finally decided to put it out of its misery and dump it direct-to-VOD this year (or, as the IMDB trivia, possibly written by someone involved with the film, overgenerously characterizes it: “Enter Saban Films, the same company who swooped in to save Rob Zombie's 31 (2016), did [sic] the same for Cell on March 31st. Saban's marketing campaign revved up in April 2016, revealing the first official poster and trailer on April 26th as well as US theatrical release!”). But come on IMBD trivia section, there’s no way to spin this that can hide the fact that a Stephen King-scripted adaptation of a bestseller starring Cusack and Jackson would have gotten a real release if it was even marginally non-embarrassing.
Given all that, this is somewhat closer to a real movie than I had pessimistically assumed, making it perhaps the only thing that happened in 2016 which turned out somewhat better than I had anticipated, instead of terrifyingly worse than I could have possibly imagined. I mean, it’s still 2016 so it’s not good or anything, or even remotely close to good, but it does in some small ways resemble a movie that you could watch and, if not enjoy, at least not feel like you’d been recklessly taken advantage of. The two stars are in it for pretty much the whole thing instead of just one or two useless scenes so they could stick their faces on the poster, for example, which was by no means a given. It has some helicopter shots and set pieces and stuff. Stacy Keach (six-time Academy-Award Nominee NEBRASKA, and also CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN) is in it.
Alas, while it’s better than it might have been, it falls squarely into that dead zone of being not good enough to really be good, but not bad enough to be interesting. It’s unexceptional in every possible way, which is ultimately a far worse sin than just being incompetent.
The mediocrity starts with its simple scenario --which is a polite way of saying, “it’s pretty much the exact same movie as every other fucking zombie movie since 28 DAYS LATER”-- where an evil cell phone tone turns people into murderous zombie death machines (the running kind, which would have been old hat even in 2006, let alone 2016), and our scattered band of rag-tag heroes have to try and survive while they go on a cross-country trek to a place they think maybe John Cusack’s adorable son might still be alive. I guess the twist is they can’t use their cell phones because then they’d become zombies. Truly, a tale of terror ripped from today’s headlines.
This is all fine as far as it goes; the zombie stuff is uninspired but adequate enough. The death blow is that it’s ugly and looks like it was shot on a cellphone by a swaying drunk. A DESPERATE PLEA TO FUTURE FILMMAKERS: BUY A TRIPOD. TURNING EVERY SHOT INTO A UNINTELLIGIBLE BLUR DOES NOT MAKE ANYTHING MORE REALISTIC. Does your head sway around like this when you’re looking at people? Do your home videos look like they were shot by a tourette's patient who’s spent the last week consuming nothing but vodka and amphetamines? Hell, even the shittiest youtube cam-phone video is steadier than this. BUY A TRIPOD. Or fuck, tie the camera to a chicken. This madness needs to end. (Some real lighting would probably help too.)
|The magic of cinema|
I know what you’re about to say, “They’re going for naturalism!” But why bother in a movie about (spoiler) an alien zombie cellphone prophecy conspiracy? Embrace the absurdity and learn to have a little fun, guys. Why constrain yourself to anything as gauche as reality when the premise is inherently this daffy? It just means your horror film looks dull and lacks any possibility of atmosphere. It also means it looks noticeably cheaper and chintzier even than it actually must have been. Long portions look about on par with your average SyFy channel original movie, but that can’t be right, can it? There’s some extremely dodgy CG which makes it seem like the movie must have been made for almost nothing, but then again there are also a couple of larger scale setpiece scenes which suggest there was at least a little budget at some point. And come on, the presence of Cusack and Jackson and the screenplay by King still means that someone must have spent a little money on this, right? Right?
If there ever was any money, though, it didn’t end up on screen. Most of the zombie action is as low-effort as these things come, mostly a handful of indifferently made up shufflers running around without anything especially interesting to do (although one zombie eats a dog, that’s fun). The vast, vast majority of the movie is just one or two shabbily dressed actors in natural lighting walking around the woods or in some nondescript room. Fortunately, there are maybe two or three setpieces involving zombies acting weird (sleeping together in a stadium, wandering in a circular holding pattern) that are unique enough images to make it not completely empty of value. Just mostly. It’s at its best when it finds this sort of bizarre gimmick and makes some use of the worthless “cell” concept, but unfortunately that’s a pretty small sliver of runtime. Most of the time it’s just a particularly dour and ugly-looking zombie apocalypse movie with no good zombies or memorable zombie sequences.
The cast isn’t much better-served than the zombies are. Cusack and Jackson are more fun to watch than most actors would be, but I also can’t help but notice that neither really has anything fun or distinctive to do, and considering how much of the movie is spent NOT getting attacked by zombies, we never really learn much about them or establish anything about their relationship either, they mostly just discuss the plot in the grimmest possible manner. CELL is hardly the first movie to waste good actors on boring roles, but again, it just really raises the question of what was supposed to be the good part, here? Cusack does manage to slip a few dry chuckles in there but it’s not enough to turn things around. Stacy Keach gets far and away the most memorable role in the movie, and that’s only because he gets to shoot a flaming arrow. OK, you got me, that’s a good part. But it’s impossible to notice that STAKE LAND, which had to be shot for less and with a less distinguished cast and no Stephen King script, does vastly, vastly more with the same basic setup. There’ just not a lot of evidence on-screen that director Tod Williams had any particular ideas as to why this would be entertaining enough to put on screen most of the time.
That adds up to a powerfully listless experience, and it wouldn’t even have been especially hard to save; a stupid but obvious direction would have been to use the “cell phones drive people crazy” gimmick as a somewhat dated poke against an over-connected modern world. It’s so obvious that multiple reviews of the film even claim that it does make this point, but I’m here to tell you it definitively does not. Maybe the book does, i don’t know. But there’s absolutely nothing in the film which would make you think Williams had considered this idea. It’s a pretty dumb, lazy premise anyway, but I can’t help but think a better director would have at least been able to squeeze something out of it.
Williams was known for well-received offbeat indie dramedies THE ADVENTURES OF SEBASTIAN COLE and THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR in the late 90’s and early 00’s, before taking a sudden left turn into horror with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 in 2010, but there’s not really any evidence of his unusual career path here, either. This just seems like the work of a thoroughly perfunctory contractual obligation. He has been married to both Famke Janssen and Gretchen Mol during both their prime hotness years, though (not at the same time), so I guess he must be doing something right somewhere. But this ain’t it. This ain’t really anything. It’s a movie that sits there staring back at you, hoping you have some idea what you’re both doing there. Sorry CELL, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Something something, joke about reception. See what I did there, that's me trying just about as hard as this movie does.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
When Everyone Is Connected No One Is Safe and Fear Your Phone
It is sort of about cell phones, I guess. It’s the title of the book, anyway.
Yes, from the Stephen King novel by the same name (co-written by the man himself!)
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Zombie (running variery)
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Stephen King. Stacy Keach?
None, which is weird because you’d usually get at least one naked zombie in there.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
There’s one turncoat dog who helps the zombies out by acting all cool around them and making our boys think everything’s chill. But he doesn’t attack, he flees like the coward and traitor that he is.
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
It’s pretty unclear what’s going on but there’s talk of a prophecy and stuff
Yeah, it’s kinda halfway between zombies and THE CRAZIES
Eh, not really
It’s implied that the “hive” is watching our heroes somehow
MORAL OF THE STORY
Guys this may come as a huge surprise to you but not all Stephen King adaptations turn out to be good movies.