Friday, June 30, 2017

Insert Snarky Phone Pun Here: "Cell" (2016)



The behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the financing, making, and distribution of this film based on Stephen King's novel is more interesting than the film itself, which is yet another post-apocalyptic road movie that owes plenty to King's previous works.

Clay (a tired John Cusack) is a graphic novel writer who is finally making it big. His estranged wife and son live in northern New England, and he has just arrived in a Boston airport with his good career news. Everyone's on their cell phones, when suddenly people start going insane and killing others around them. Planes collide and crash to the ground in all their computer animated glory (more on that later), and Clay flees, finding himself underground in a subway tunnel where cell phone signals cannot reach. He meets up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), and they head to Clay's apartment, picking up neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) along the way (she killed her own mother, which she seems to shake off rather quickly). The trio set out for Clay's family's home, he is confident that despite the chaos going on around them, his wife and son are going to be alright. The impossible trek turns into an information gathering field trip, as our group of heroes meet up with various characters who all offer input as to what is happening, and the audience has to delineate the facts as well. The climax of the film has gained cult status for its lousy, impossibly cheesy special effects.

From what I have read, "Cell" seems to have been a doomed production from the start. King co-wrote the screenplay, but there were financing issues (there are a ton of production companies listed in the opening credits). The lack of a sure budget means what should have been some epic scenes (the opening airport scene, a mass cell-zombie extermination on a soccer field, the climax) are treated to special effects that are more at home on a YouTube fan film channel. The film itself debuted online, then opened in a handful of theaters (has this marketing strategy ever worked in the history of movies?), and even the DVD/digital copy I purchased was in the $5 bargain bin at Wal-Mart, despite coming out almost a year ago.

Director Williams has done other films, but he seems to have been hamstrung in his creative efforts here. He is the only one who participated on the audio commentary (I couldn't sit through this again to listen to it), and it's very telling that his behind-the-scenes featurette interview is done with a giant green screen in the background. The computer animation here is awful. The climax should have been effective and creepy, but I couldn't stop guffawing at the Video Toaster-like effects (there's a early 1990's reference for all you middle-aged broadcasting and mass communications majors out there). I didn't read King's novel, I gave up on King after slogging through half of "Insomnia," but I could spot story elements from The Stand, Pet Sematary, The Shining, and even Maximum Overdrive here. In King's America, does everyone sit on a cache of guns? Good thing one supporting character seems to be an expert bomb maker, providing a convenient catalyst for the finale. In true Hollywood fashion, guns are found, everyone is an expert shot, and ammo is never-ending. Williams' best scenes are the intimately creepy ones, like the drive-in theater, Clay's home, and a fortified bar. His direction is a bit shaky and off-putting, which adds to the tension.

The cast does what they can, everyone gets their little moments. I wondered why no one turns on a TV in the film, or where the stereotypical evil government was. The characters, and the viewer, must accept what is happening and run with it, and ambiguity is a good thing, but having all the survivors being visited in their nightmares by the same red hoodie-wearing demonic character was never followed through with or explained to my satisfaction.

"Cell" isn't the worst film ever made, heck, it's not even the worst Stephen King adaptation ever made (I'm glaring at you, "Dreamcatcher"), but it is a definite curiosity. MPAA rated (R), the film contains physical violence, gun violence, gore, profanity, mild sexual content, and adult situations. (* *) out of five stars. Buy it here!: Cell

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