The book Cell will always hold a special place in my heart, if for nothing else than because it was the first Stephen King book I ever read. I remember pacing around my room in the summer before 8th grade, the book closed on the ground because I wanted to keep reading but couldn’t because I was too scared. I powered through the last 30 pages in absolute horror and couldn’t sleep for weeks.
If I read the book now, I might have a different reaction. Not just because I’m much older, but because the concept is so dated. The book takes place in a world where all cell phones become corrupted, and anyone who puts their phone up to their ear turns into a cult-following zombie. Cell was published in 2006, just when cell phones were truly becoming omnipresent. There were still some who were afraid of this trend, but it was clear that cell phones were the future. At the back of the book, King said that he would not now, nor ever own a cell phone. Even at the tender age of 12, I thought this statement was ridiculous.
Ten years after the publication of his novel, I’m sure he’s changed his mind. He has a social media presence and he posts pictures that look they were shot on a cell phone. I also think that Stephen King doesn’t actually care enough to boycott cell phones in this day and age. While the threat of cell phones might still technically seem like a viable start to a horror film, the message it sends seems wacky. Not only is it overly egocentric, but many people rarely even make calls anymore. 2016 is just too late for a horror movie of this nature, especially when it is as poorly made at Cell is.
To be clear, it’s not like the decision to make Cell was even remotely sudden. There were talks of a movie adaptation nearly immediately after the book was published. Eli Roth was attached to it at one point, which would have been interesting, if nothing else. I remember looking up who owned the rights almost directly after finishing reading the book, and continuing to periodically look it up throughout the years (not as much as I check the development of a The Long Walk movie, but you get the point).
Development started, and then stopped. Then John Cusack was cast. Then they were shooting the film. Then the movie disappeared. John Cusack didn’t even know what had happened to the film. Everything stopped, until very recently a trailer was released. When I saw the film in the “New & Noteworthy” section of iTunes, I was shocked as I had heard nearly nothing about its release. It turns out that it was released on VOD early, and will get a theatrical release in early July. In hindsight, that wasn’t a great sign, but I had been waiting for this movie for so long that I went ahead and rented it anyway.
And even from the opening sequence it was clear that something was wrong. The opening credits to Cell are some of the worst opening credits that I’ve ever seen. Random black blocks appear on screen with white lettering in what looks like Times New Roman (it could have been Cambria though. I’d love to have someone look into this. It’s definitely a very generic font.). No one makes creative decisions that poor and gets Samuel L. Jackson in their movies. This has to mean that somewhere in the post-production process, somebody stopped caring. A lot of people must have stopped caring. I would love to know what drama happened behind the scenes of this movie, because there were some colossally odd decisions.
Speaking of, it always seemed strange to me why Cell would be adapted into a movie in the first place. The obvious answer is “money”, but it always seemed to me that Cell would be much better off as a mini-series or a TV show. Stephen King does a lot of great world building in his book, and I would have loved to see this world develop in a smart and controlled way. With only 100 minutes at the film’s disposal, everything seems rushed. The movie jumps through the book’s various plot points with no discernable structure and then the film ends. It’s really obvious that there was some struggle in adapting the book into a filmic structure.
Really everything related to Cell’s narrative needs a lot of work. The characters are all underdeveloped or nonexistent, the dialogue is pointless or only serves to move the plot along and the thematic points are nearly nonexistent. The only thing the movie has going for it is its inherent plotline and all of the great details that it leeches from the novel. And as we have previously discussed, the book’s initial pitch is completely dated in the present moment.
Unfortunately, the film’s production fails to impress as well. The movie is a zombie film, but the zombies here are low-budget and kind of awkward. This is partially because the cinematography is bright and a little too high definition, and partially because its clear that the zombie extras haven’t been given a lot of notes. The special effects are bad on both a macro and a micro level. The small moments seem fake and the big moments look preposterous. The actors do an okay enough job, but they receive no help from the film, and often don’t seem genuine simply because of the material they are given.
Here’s the kicker though. There are a couple moments in the movie that are actually kind of good. Twice in the film I was so scared I jumped. Near the end of the film the atmosphere was actually super creepy. But these are isolated incidents. Within about 15 seconds of any of these events, something would inevitably happen in the film that would make me cringe and roll my eyes. But what this means is that at some point in the process there was some competency. At some point there was an intention to make a good movie. The concept might have been dated, but Cell could have been a fun film. Perhaps this is a case of a broken clock being right twice a day, but I don’t think so. I think this movie was sabotaged in some way, and I desperately want to know what happened to it, no matter how much it hurts my soul.
There’s one scene in particular that sums up everything that is wrong with Cell. At one point in an abandoned prep school, the survivors discover that all of the zombies shut down for the night and listen to music. The musical selection that Cell makes is the Trololo song. I’m not kidding. The movie uses the famous internet meme as perhaps the most important song in the film. This proves one of two things: Either the filmmakers thought that this was a funny idea and they are purely incompetent, or this is a “screw you” message to someone along the way. Either way, the audience gets the short end of the stick.