‘Cell’: Film Review

John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson face Stephen King’s mobile-phone apocalypse.

When Stephen King released Cell in 2006, the premise probably seemed a fitting parable for our dependence on unceasing connection via personal tech: One day, a mysterious signal causes everyone in the world who’s talking on a cell phone to turn into a zombie-like killer. A decade later, though, real life has made the metaphor redundant: Try to navigate a sidewalk full of walk-and-type texters, and you’ll know who the real zombies are.

But if Tod Williams’ adaptation of Cell is dated on arrival, the last 10 years have presented it with a bigger hurdle: a deluge of zombie fiction that makes anything less than excellent action look dreary. Though it’s better than its “dump this thing” theatrical release would suggest, Cell is far from excellent. Even with John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson in the leads, a swift passage to ancillary afterlife is assured.

The Bottom Line

A by-the-book technophobic horror tale.

RELEASE DATE Jul 08, 2016

Cusack plays graphic novelist Clay Riddell, who has just landed at the Boston airport when the mysterious cell broadcast occurs. Before the film has had time to wipe its shoes on the welcome mat, TSA agents are eating their dogs and rabid mayhem has claimed almost everyone onscreen. (As they don’t die before turning, these mouth-foamers aren’t technically zombies. But they’re fast and mean, and haven’t forgotten how to wield the occasional weapon.)

Escaping into the city with train conductor Tom McCourt (Jackson), Clay teams with upstairs neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) before fleeing town. The three embark on a now-standard pilgrimage to a place rumored to be zombie-free, with the usual stops along the way: finding an arsenal at a gun nut’s house; taking refuge (and learning things about the enemy) at an abandoned private school; and getting help from other survivors of dubious sanity.

Comic relief is rare (“Think it’s safe to text?” a character asks hopefully at one point), but there’s not a lot to be relieved from: The scariest thing on offer is the way the enslaved humans (dubbed “phoners“) emit electronic noises and other broadcasts from their open-hanging, expressionless mouths. The effect is a direct ripoff of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it works.

What works less well is the confused nature of the affliction controlling those phoners. The script (co-written by King) strays substantially from the novel in its depiction of “The Night Traveler,” a red-hoodied creep who may be the man (or alien? or spirit? or metaphor?) pulling the strings. Still, the picture makes more sense than 1408, the incoherent haunted-hotel King adaptation Cusack and Jackson teamed up for in 2007. Where that film went off the rails, this one plays it safe, albeit with a bait-and-switch ending likely to annoy fans of the book.

Distributor: Saban Films
Production companies: Genre Company, Benaroya Pictures
: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Owen Teague, Clark Sarullo, Anthony Reynolds, Erin Elizabeth Burns, Stacy Keach
Director: Tod Williams
: Stephen King, Adam Alleca
Producers: Richard Saperstein, Michael Benaroya, Brian Witten, Shara Kay
Executive producers: John Cusack, Stephen Hays, Peter Graham, Ben Sachs
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Production designer: John Collins
Costume designer: Lorraine Coppin
Editor: Jacob Craycroft
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting directors: Tara Feldstein, Chase Paris

Rated R, 97 minutes