Cell (2016)

JULY 10, 2016

GENRE: TECHNOLOGY, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

As I've said in the past, I am very much a movie before book guy - I know the book will be better, so I can enjoy both rather than go into a movie and get frustrated with everything that they changed or left out. But there are always exceptions (I do like to read after all, and who knows what will be turned into a movie?), and there's also the occasional... er, occasion where I don't like the book much anyway - the movie might actually be an improvement! Such was my hope for Cell, as I thought it was a terrific idea with a killer first 100 pages or so, but ultimately was left underwhelmed by; Stephen King's tendency to botch his endings was in full effect for that one, and the "Raggedy Man" felt like a poor retread of some of his better villains (Randall Flagg in particular). Could a movie fix the book's problems and turn his story into a killer cell phone signal into one of the better King adaptations?

See, I had heard that King changed the ending, and I knew from a few plot descriptions that they weren't following the book to the letter, so I went in hopeful. It didn't hurt that the cast reunited John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson from 1408, which is not only one of the better modern King films, but also a huge hit (the 2nd highest grossing after Green Mile, in fact - though inflation changes that a bit, of course) - as good of a pedigree you could hope for, even if the movie wasn't being distributed by a major studio or given much of as release (I had to drive 30 miles to see it theatrically in a tiny theater). I figured at worst it'd be an OK zombie movie that couldn't manage to overcome its less than stellar source material - certainly nothing new for the horror genre, and even an OK King movie would be better than a lot of them, right?

Alas, saying it was "OK" is almost overselling it. It's not TERRIBLE, but each act is weaker than the one before it, so what started out as a movie I was enjoying and wondering why it got dumped ended up as a movie I wished I had (like one of the four other audience members) walked out early and saved myself some time. Of course, then I would have denied myself the sight of one of the film's primary actors stumbling around as a zombie, which I assure you is even funnier the 2nd time they show it. Again, King's ending wasn't great, but damned if they didn't actually manage to make it WORSE here, and I can't for the life of me imagine why they thought this would be an improvement - they would have been better off copying his ending directly and chalking it up to respect for the text. Granted, King himself is credited with the screenplay, but so is another writer, and the "and" that separates their credits tells us that they weren't working together. So who knows if this is King's ending or not; Cusack tweeted a while back that both he and King had been cut out of the movie's communication process, so we can assume they aren't thrilled with how it turned out, either.

Back to the credits for a minute. Cusack is listed as an executive producer, which means he either sunk some of his own money into it or helped them find the financing to make it (presumably by attaching himself as a star to secure said financing from foreign territories). Alas, there are like twenty other listed executive producers, so when you couple that with the FIVE production logos at the top (none of them you'll recognize), you can quickly ascertain that this was a "film" only in the technical sense. People complain about big studio blockbusters all the time, but personally I find these movies far more insulting - they're thrown together, shot in generic locales (Atlanta here), and designed only to get sold into the overseas markets based on their "star power". It's something I see a lot in the action genre (pretty much every Bruce Willis movie in the past three years falls into this category - one of which also featured Cusack), but rarely for horror films. It's sad to see Sam Jackson joining this little crew (Nicolas Cage, Tom Jane, and Cuba Gooding Jr are other frequent offenders), so hopefully it's just a momentary lapse of judgment for the actor (who has appeared in plenty of bad movies, yes, but they're of the technically more prestigious variety, like Robocop) and not a sign of a dying career. Silver lining, he seems to be aware he signed up for a dud - I can't recall the last time I saw him so disinterested in a performance. He's usually the only source of energy in a lazy film (again, like Robocop), but here he just kind of says his lines and fades into the background more often than not; a brief bar scene where he drunkenly sings some oldie is the only time he seems like he's invested in the proceedings.

Anyway, like all those action movies I mentioned, it quickly becomes clear that one of the main problems is that they're spending too much of their limited budget on securing "names" instead of actually putting it on the screen, so you get a script that probably needed 30-60m to be shot properly, produced for maybe a tenth or (if I'm being generous) a fifth of that amount. And they blow most of the money that they had for actual on-screen production value in the first ten minutes, when the cell-phone outbreak strikes at an airport (not Boston Common as in the book, but it's a solid change) - we get some good carnage, lots of zombified extras, a plane exploding - good stuff. Lloyd Kaufman even shows up, suggesting that perhaps the loss of original director Eli Roth didn't mean that the gonzo splatter spirit he likely would have brought to the table would be gone with him. Cusack (who survives the outbreak because his cell phone died - he's using a payphone at the time) then makes his way down to the subway where he meets Jackson, and they hole up at his place (along with one of his neighbors, played by Orphan's Isabelle Fuhrman) before heading on foot up north to find his family.

This is the good section of the movie, but even here we see signs that perhaps the production wasn't quite up to the task of telling this apocalyptic story. I can forgive the filming location substitutions; as a Bostonian I knew right away that they weren't really there, but I've seen far worse attempts at passing off [name your overused filming location] as my old home. But it was almost oppressively generic - they call it "Boston Airport" instead of Logan, the subway name was wrong (I forget what it was, but it wasn't MBTA), and they didn't even show a Dunkin Donuts - despite the fact that they also exist in Atlanta! I mean, come on - putting a Dunkin Donuts in the shot is an easier method than on-screen text saying "Boston, Massachusetts" to sell the setting; the only distinct landmark I can recall is the Prudential Center as part of a CGI skyline behind them. Everything just felt completely phony, and it just got worse as the movie wore on, as Cusack repeatedly says the name of the NH town he's heading for, but offering no landmarks or geographical info to let us know how close they were. And considering how big the population of Massachusetts is, I also had trouble with its depiction of a zombie outbreak - when they're in the outskirts I guess it's fine that there weren't a lot around, but even in the streets of Boston when they leave Cusack's place to make their way north seem curiously underpopulated - they only have to sneak past one group of like thirty zombies before pretty much being in the clear.

Of course, even if they encountered swarms of zombies every step of the way it wouldn't matter much, as the trio are all expert marksmen, it seems - Jackson's character says he was in Vietnam to explain his shooting skills, but there is no explanation for how Cusack (who doesn't even know how to load the gun) and Fuhrman never seem to miss even when firing while running. As with the book, as things progress with the (goofy) plot it becomes less about the danger of a zombie attacking them and more about the zombies' hive-mind, drone behavior that has them running in circles, so the movie is not only at its best in the first half hour or so, it's also the only time the characters seem to be in any legitimate danger. The movie offers not one but two scenes where Cusack drives a truck through hundreds of the things (they're sleeping in one of them, to be fair) and neither of them carry any tension at all - the second time the shuffling drones just sort of wait until he passes before continuing their endless circling of a big radio tower. At a certain point I almost wished for the introduction of some evil humans, just to give the movie a bit of pep - it'd be better than another scene of our characters walking through zombie-free, depressingly nondescript fields and groves.

It also doesn't embrace its R-rating for the most part, as if they didn't want to put much effort into cutting it down if they had to make it PG-13. There are a couple of isolated gore gags in the airport scene and Sam gets his F-bomb in as always, but otherwise it's shockingly tame - the dozens of zombies they shoot go down without even as much as a CGI bullet hole, and the rare good guy deaths are fairly bloodless as well (one is off-screen entirely, another just gets whacked over the head). My only theory is that they DID want to make it PG-13 (perhaps that would be the "creative differences" cited for when Roth left the project - seven years ago, for the record) and got an R anyway but didn't bother to fight it? At any rate, you can get far more visceral action on Walking Dead every week (easy to compare it to since they're shot in the same state). That said, don't give me any shit about the "zombie" word or tagging - as with 28 Days Later, they are used in the exact same way and have the same anonymity/numbers as they do in any traditional zombie flick. Unless there's proof that the infection can be reversed and the victim will return to normal, it's a zombie movie for all intents and purposes.

Ultimately, the biggest disappointment with the film is that they failed to modernize the source material to any meaningful degree. Sure, we all had cell phones in 2006 when the book was published, but not "smart" phones (even those with cameras were still relatively new, and they didn't even do video yet), an element that barely plays a part in this 2016 (OK, actually 2014) film. Cusack thinks his son might be safe because he never calls anyone, just uses his phone to text and play games, and that's pretty much the extent of modernizing the concept. Hilariously, the timing for the film's late release couldn't have been better, as I and everyone else in the country was spending a chunk of our weekend staring at our phones while playing Pokemon Go - if the (never explained) cell signal originated in real life over the weekend via a stupid game, it would have wiped out the population in half the time. And for what it's worth, I was more creeped out by seeing a dozen people standing motionless in a park (save for their swipes) than I was for anything during this movie. Even the film's attempts at explaining how it works are half-assed and unresolved - they seem to establish that texting someone won't turn you into a zombie, but what about apps? There was a real opportunity here to dive into the fun sociological potential of the concept (that our phones, meant to connect us to our loved ones, are turning us into mindless zombies), but they are content with just more or less sticking to King's decade old novel, poorly and cheaply. Rarely has a professional horror movie squandered so much potential.

What say you?

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