This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Sue77’s review published on Letterboxd :
This review may contain spoilers.
Having recently read Stephen King’s book and enjoyed it, I was looking forward to seeing the film version of Cell directed by Tod Williams. Cell stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, both very capable actors and, as King’s novel (published 2006) includes a solid narrative thread, my expectations were pretty high.
Whereas the novel establishes Clay Riddle’s (Cusack) family difficulties then, gears up with him noticing increasingly strange behaviour which gathers pace until it explodes on the streets, the film rapidly presents a full on action sequence where several people are affected on-mass in an airport lounge. This is nicely done with cell phone usage being established in the opening shots and during Clay’s conversation with his estranged wife and son. As people have fits, foam and transform into violent killers of the non-transformed - due to receiving a signal broadcast across cell phone networks - the camera work rapidly tracks events and establishes how mass panic transforms a crowd. But for me this opening sequence, however well done, lacked the insidious creepiness and gore of the build-up in King’s novel. The viewer is suddenly thrown into mayhem and action which isn’t sustained for long, and I suspect this affects how the slow pace of the rest of the film is received.
In my opinion, one of the core aspects of Cell should have been a survivalist road trip. Once Clay has decided to head north and search for his son, much of King’s ‘on the road’ narrative is condensed into arriving at various places. This means the viewer has little sense of the road travelled, or how the actions of those who are transformed affect the time and manner of the journey undertaken by the small group of survivors. The result is a visual narrative which feels disjointed, especially as there is little exploration of individual characters and inter-character conversation. In addition, the role of Raggedy Man (Joshua Mikel) is reduced to such an extent it becomes a clownish caricature rather than a fully fleshed, terrifying figure with dialogue that relates to the pulse event and has real impact in the final stages of the story. This downgrading of such an integral character results in a cinematic finale which feels hollow – despite an attempt to mirror the horrific ending of ‘The Mist’. The final nail in the coffin for me was the ‘woman in the attic’ section which, clearly, is intended to raise tension in a film devoid of it after the first 20 minutes. This fails dramatically as a device. It is too easily anticipated and consequently mundane.
However, what is extremely well portrayed is the flocking of those who have been transformed. The physical performances of the extras are fantastic. The way they ‘tune in’ to the signal as the sun goes down along with the sound which issues from their open mouths portrays a wonderful inhuman aspect. The one chase which involves the transformed was well realised by the extras in both body movements and sound. These aspects of King’s novel are so well explored that, for me, this was one film where the extras deserved bigger billing than the stars.
As for the star actors, Cusack appears to struggle with the physicality of the action sequences. Despite being 18 years older than Cusack, Jackson manages these sequences with far greater aplomb and gives some much needed character and zip to a number of scenes. Isabelle Fuhrman as Alice Maxwell gives a very solid performance, but both her and Owen Teague as Jordan felt underutilised. I came away from these performances feeling that Clay needed to be played by younger, fitter man and that perhaps ruthless editing had resulted in some characters being stripped back to paper thin basics. If there had been more focus on ‘road trip’ conversation and interaction between survivors, so the viewer knew them better, it would have been easier to empathise with the position individuals found themselves in.
Overall, I can’t recommend Cell. Rather than using an apocalyptic event to build towards a strong climatic ending, Tod Williams has front loaded his film so the event is the climax. After this, Cell struggles to regain the action packed pace of the beginning and, apart from those scenes where the transformed flock and sing, Cell failed to unnerve this viewer. Also, the downgrading of a main character, central to the plot, to a clownish caricature removes any real tension from the narratives core and the films ending. Sadly, this is one of those movies which fail to reproduce the characters, tension and horror present in Stephen King’s novel.