I’ve been reading Stephen King’s books since high school, the novel, “It,” being my first read and that was quite an undertaking. At the time I had graduated from reading books of 200 pages or less and going into one that consisted of 1,138 with a thickness resembling a phonebook; it had troubled me a bit. But after reading the first few pages, I couldn’t put it down and that had started my obsession with the author, purchasing every King book in print and enjoying all of them thoroughly. From that point on, I would pre-order every book release, immersing myself into his fictional world of Maine and beyond.
The same had gone for all the movies that were based on his books, especially the ones filmed in the 1980s. From the well-made serious adaptations such as De Palma’s Carrie or Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone to the more zanier films like Maximum Overdrive (directed by King himself) or Graveyard Shift, I’ve seen them all and own most of them on DVD or Blu-Ray.
As time went on, I—as well as a lot of King’s readership—have noticed a bit of a wane in his work, especially at the beginning of the new millennium. Though his books were still excellent, it seemed to lose that magic I’d always felt when reading his stories. I have quite a few novels on my bookshelf that I haven’t cracked yet—such as “Lisey’s Story” or “Duma Key”—but I plan to read them someday soon. One of the last magical books I’d read from King was “11/22/63” and it left quite an impression on me, causing me to think about it long after finishing it. I’d thought that he was returning to form, but then I’d jumped into “Revival” right after and felt a bit let down. King’s recent three books—called the “Bill Hodges Trilogy”—is an interesting storyline, but it delves more into the crime novel territory and away from the supernatural.
One novel that I had such high hopes for was the story, “Cell,” and the synopsis grabbed me as I had really thought I was going to go for quite a ride, returning to my preceding journeys like when I’d read the epic novel, “The Stand,” back in the late 80s. However, "Cell" was interesting enough and kept me turning the pages, but I’d never really reflected back on it after I was done reading it. A couple of years later, I’d heard that the story was going to be adapted to film and I thought it would’ve made a great movie, having potential to really entertain audiences. Back in late 2007 or early 2008, it was rumored that Eli Roth was to helm the film and that was pretty much all the news I’d heard about for a while. I’d been teased a little when I had first watched the trailer for The Happening because the actions of the people that go crazy in that film is pretty much what was described in King’s book. It wasn’t until a year or two ago when I’d caught wind of film production and saw a set photo along with the news that John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson were re-teaming for the adaptation (previously working together in 1408).
Finally, I had thought, we get to see Stephen King’s vision come to life.
Or did we? Here’s the synopsis of Cell...
When a mysterious cell phone signal causes apocalyptic chaos, an artist, Clay Riddell (John Cusack), is determined to reunite with his young son, Johnny (Ethan Andrew Casto), in New England.
Now, before I go into the movie and how well it was adapted, I’ve got to say I was thrown off by John Cusack’s appearance right away. As the film opens, it centers around Cusack’s character arriving at an airport and trying to call his son, but his hair was making him appear like a madman for some reason, as if he'd adopted the crazy Nicolas Cage look. It appeared as if too much product (gel or mousse) was placed in his mane, making it tuft out toward the back and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. Thankfully, not long after the turmoil erupts, Cusack dons a beanie and his hair is soon forgotten.
With that out of the way, I’d bought his portrayal of Clay Riddell, even when they’d announced him in the lead. Cusack has a way of playing the everyman so well, that there was really no way he’d screw this part up. As I’d mentioned the opening scene a little, I really hadn’t got into what happens and how he reacts to everything. Namely, this opening depicts how a signal comes through everyone’s cell phones, that when each person places the device to their ear, they instantly become turned into some raving lunatic. Seeing Cusack’s reaction to seeing everyone beginning to kill each other in such vicious ways was very compelling and you can comprehend the range of emotions he’s going through.
Speaking of the experience that metamorphoses everyone, what the book and film names “the pulse,” I was somewhat enthralled by it at first and felt it translated the event quite articulately from the novel. In fact, it seemed to add a bit more as the people who had been changed by this phenomenon are more than individuals with their brains scrambled, they’d seemed to be turned into a device. Rather than normal screams and screeches, the changed people—called “phoners” in the book and this film—sound more electronic or automated; I felt that was a nice touch.
I must say, however, that after this first part of Cell—the people becoming “phoners,” the killing and chaos, Clay escaping the airport unscathed, meeting up with Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and getting to his apartment—we enter a bit of a lull and it just makes the movie grind to a halt. The filmmakers had seemed to be trying for some character development—and we get a little—but it seemed a bit uneven and forced. It’s at this point that we get another introduction and addition to Clay’s little survivor’s group (barring the inclusion of the short-lived character who claimed to be DJ So-and-So—I forget his name and it’s just as well), who happens to be his next-door-neighbor, Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman). Following a few other scenes of “phoner” attacks, there’s just more lulls until they end up at some private school to introduce more characters—the dean of the school, Charles Ardai (Stacy Keach), and a student, Jordan (Owen Teague). From then on, some attacks, more lulls, introduction of more uninteresting characters, and...the end.
Don’t get me too wrong here, there are some curious and intriguing concepts of the story to make it better than the book, but I think the movie had trouble executing it and maybe it was more of a mistake with editing. Some of the story seems heavy-handed, then sometimes it’s not really understandable...overall just seeming clunky with the whole exposition. But...I'd really loved the depiction of everyone once they become part of this whole hive of “phoners” as they'd all seemed automated rather than how they are described as in the book...kind of like the zombies in the Dawn of the Dead remake back in ’06. A lot of the visuals were remarkable—Some, not so much—and added to the horror the characters were facing, especially seeing all the “phoners” walk around as one or how they all gathered together at night to upgrade their collective brain. Though there is quite a bit that I can complain about, the one thing I had been looking forward to was the character of The Raggedy Man (played here by Joshua Mikel). In the book, he was sort of the leader of all the “phoners” and was the one Clay and the group had to outsmart; here in this film, he was just depicted as Clay’s art come-to-life, not really much more than that—he was clearly someone they had to deal with, but the filmmakers really didn’t convey that well enough.
If there’s any bright spot here in Cell is the decision to go away from the book’s ending and to change it here in the film. I won’t give either away, but I like how they’d handled it here. Tod Williams (Paranormal Activity 2) directed the cast well, but the story probably should’ve had a bit more tweaking. All cast members were great in their respective parts, but they just didn’t have a strong enough production from the outset. Adam Alleca wrote the screenplay here, and I’ve enjoyed the few other projects he’s worked on, but this—along with the editing—needed to be a bit more tuned up before the studio decided to release this.
Lastly, I’ll say this—back when the book was written and published, I’d thought it was such a great idea that had captured the culture of America perfectly. At the time, EVERYONE was on their phones—while driving their cars, waiting in line at the bank, getting a haircut, eating at a restaurant—it was a national singularity that was accepted by all. When talks of a film adaptation came down through the pipeline, I thought it was perfect, that maybe this will put a scare into people to get them to stop talking on their cell phones all the time. It was getting ridiculous and becoming a nuisance as it became widespread throughout the country, causing accidents and displaying overall stupidity by everyone. Alas, the movie, though spoken of as a possibility, didn’t happen right then and the culture of speaking on cell phones all the time morphed into people texting or Tweeting or Facebook updating...nobody really spoke on their phones anymore. Though what it evolved into was worse—people were constantly looking at their phones instead of doing more important tasks like, uh, driving without looking at their phones?—and made the prospect of a film adaptation not so significant. But Cell is what it is and they, at least, tried to stay true to the book and created something modern enough for the times.
My final “bit” on Cell?
If you’re a Stephen King fan, and one who’s read this novel, you might enjoy this and will find interest in how the writer had changed the ending (it actually might’ve been a collaborative effort by Alleca and King). The story is easy enough to follow along, but it cuts right along at times to leave you guessing at the characters’ motivations. But you’ll have time to figure that out when the film hits its lulls, unless you know the book’s story, then these times will really bore you. I’d hate to say this, especially with the potential this story had, but this film is not worth your time and isn’t very good. You can hazard a viewing, but I don’t recommend it.
Thanks for reading!