The work of Stephen King has been adapted on the big and small screen pretty much at least once every year since 1979. Cell is the latest in this very long line of these adaptations and it’s certainly not the worst but certainly not the best either. It’s had a gestating process to the big screen (in reality it’s been almost seen exclusive through VOD or home video) with Eli Roth being attached to it pretty much since the book’s publication, struggles to get an US distributor and according to Cusack he and Stephen King got shut out of the film eventually.
Cell is a brilliant set-up of a world of zombies who get infected mysteriously by mobile phone (cell phones are what Americans say) signals and Clay Riddell (John Cusack) must try to get to his son through the chaos. Clay joins up with Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alice (Alice Maxwell) while they cross through New England. They meet more survivors on their way including Stacey Keach’s private school headmaster who takes them in for a while.
The film starts off really strong with the scene of the outbreak in the Boston airport. The fear of Cusack after he gets cut off from his ex-wife and son is perfectly believable and the “holy shit” moment when the almost entire airport turns into this orgy of violence is effective, an airport cook comes at Cusack with a knife at one point. The film however was made on a small budget and when the inevitable plane crashes into the terminal the CGI plane and fire leaves a lot be desired.
Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson previously worked on another King adaptation 1408 which gleefully went insane in its last act. Due to their previous collaboration they have a relatively strong chemistry even though both actors are not bringing their A game to the material, it’s their B game if not C game. The film is also big first for Jackson who portrays his first gay character even though it’s only mentioned in passing with “my man left me” but given the rarity of gay men of colour on-screen, it’s a step forward.
The film falters somewhere near the middle part to the obvious lack of funds (the film was shot nearly 3 years ago) so the apocalypse described can never be fully realised. The film is at it’s best with it’s a two-hander with Cusack and Jackson. However given the sniffy reviews the film has gotten (it currently has 8% on Rotten Tomatoes) it’s been than it’s reputation. It’s relatively effect as a fun zombie romp which isn’t fully satisfying but injects a some originality in a pretty much dead genre. The satirical aspect might be too obvious but has a fun factor to see a film about a bunch of brain-dead zombies due to their phone addictions.