When Stephen King’s novel Cell was published in 2006, the zombie apocalypse it described read like a warning against society’s growing dependence on cell phones. Perhaps it would have been better had a film adaptation been made around that time, while there was still a glimmer of hope. Alas, it was shot in 2014 and released now, and in that ten-year period, cell phones have become so ubiquitous and psychologically ingrained that any narrative warning against them would fall on deaf ears. In today’s world, the film plays like it’s merely jumping on the zombie bandwagon, unimaginatively following in the footsteps of major genre hits such as World War Z and The Walking Dead. As a result, we’re left with a film that isn’t all that compelling.
Having said that, there isn’t much compelling about zombies in general; like vampires and werewolves (I’m undecided about ghosts), they’re nothing more than figments of our imaginations, intended to give readers and moviegoers a quick thrill. I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally find it hard to get scared by that which can’t actually happen, a zombie apocalypse being among them. Strange that zombies have gone beyond fiction and inspired the publishing of survival guides and the opening of surplus stores. Setting that aside, it doesn’t help that the zombie genre has become about as ubiquitous as cell phones, which is to say it has become stale and repetitive.
The film, adapted in part by King, stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. You may recall that both men costarred in another King adaptation, 2007’s 1408. I’m aware that the two films aren’t comparable in terms of the subgenres of horror they belong to. Nevertheless, 1408 was a much better film, burning slowly and relying on subtleties and mind tricks. The point wasn’t to make you jump, but to unnerve you. The one thing Cell does have in its favor, like 1408, is believable chemistry between the leads; they really do seem like men thrust into an extraordinary situation, and they rely on what they know to get them through. For Cusack’s character, it’s the desperate need to return to his son. For Jackson’s, it’s his basic training as well as his ability to adapt.
The plot involves an evil signal of unknown origin pulsing through the world’s cell phones, turning everyone holding a cell phone to his or her ear into an animalistic savage capable of beating, stabbing, hacking, or biting people to death. As Cusack and Jackson lead a band of unaffected people from Boston to New Hampshire to Maine – using gathered weapons, guns especially – they incrementally surmise that these zombies, or “phonies,” have become part of a hive mind that, in the same way as a shorted computer chip in a cell phone, is, for lack of a better term, rebooting. They communicate by emitting an inhuman noise, a mixture of insectoid clicking and static. They eventually “evolve” to the point that they can spread the signal to other people without the aid of a cell phone.
One of the film’s biggest issues is its handling of the primary antagonist – a blonde-haired young man with a red hoodie and massive head wounds. In the novel, it was clearly explained that he was the leader of “phonies,” masterminding an extermination of all remaining unaffected people, or “normals.” In the film, his presence and purpose are very unclear. He’s depicted as a cross between Freddy Kruger, having the ability to enter the dreams of multiple people, and King creation George Stark, having magically manifested from the drawings of Cusack’s continuing graphic novel. Because this hooded man appears and disappears at random, at times tricking people into thinking he’s present when in fact he isn’t, his connection to the zombie apocalypse no longer makes sense.
But then there’s the biggest issue of all, namely the ending. The novel ended on a note of uncertainty, but at least the events leading up to the final moment were straightforward. As rewritten for the film, it’s as if three different alternate endings were spliced together. To what end, I have no idea; one cannot work with the other two present. Was the intention for the audience to experience the very vision or hallucination the character in the scene was having? If so, what is that vision or hallucination trying to tell us, if anything at all? I watched the final scene in utter confusion, and when the credits started rolling, I felt as if I had been cheated out of something. The beginning and middle of Cell might have been pedestrian, but at least I understood what was going on.