Friday, July 8, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: CELL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Tod Williams. Written by Stephen King and Adam Alleca. Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach, Owen Teague, Erin Elizabeth Burns, Clark Sarullo, Ethan Stuart Casto, Joshua Mikel, Catherine Dyer, Lloyd Kaufman. (R, 98 mins)

Based on the 2006 Stephen King novel, CELL is easily the worst big-screen King adaptation since 1995's THE MANGLER, which may come as a surprise since King himself co-wrote the script. The novel had a bumpy journey from page to screen, first being announced in 2007 by the Weinsteins and Dimension Films as a project for Eli Roth, from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Roth left over "creative differences" and the entire project fell apart. The Weinsteins sold the rights to others, Alexander and Karaszewski's script was tossed, and King himself was commissioned to rewrite the screenplay. By the time filming began, with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 director Tod Williams at the helm, significant rewrites were done by Adam Alleca, who scripted the 2009 remake of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. That remake was OK as far as remakes go, but it begs a question: how bad was King's script that Adam Alleca was hired to fix it? CELL reunites John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, stars of the not-bad 2008 King short story adaptation 1408, but both actors have rarely seemed more disinterested in what they're doing. It's a badly-made, incoherent mess, starting with video-burned opening credits that make it look like a cheap TV show, and ending with some embarrassing CGI explosions that aren't even up to the standards of The Asylum. Remember when Stephen King movies were big events? It's not long into CELL before you realize why Lionsgate gave it a stealth VOD burial. It's an amateurish disaster that would be laughed off the screens if it got a wide multiplex release. This is so bad that even a prime time slot on Syfy on a Saturday night would've been too gala a premiere for it.

An exclusive pic of an audience exiting
a pre-release test screening of CELL
Whatever themes that were present in King's novel--there's some satirical points to be made by the effects of cell and smartphones on the public--are dumped here in favor of yet another generic zombie apocalypse story. Opening with an event known as "The Pulse," much of the world (or at least the few Atlanta locations the boatload of producers could afford) is turned into rampaging, flesh-eating 28 DAYS LATER creatures by a croaky signal that transmits over their phones. Fortunately for comic book artist Clay Riddell (Cusack), his cell battery died at the airport just before The Pulse, thus making him immune from the initial outbreak. Teaming up with subway conductor Tom McCourt (Jackson), the pair venture to Clay's studio where his neighbor Alice (ORPHAN's Isabelle Fuhrman) has just been forced to kill her zombified mother. The trio make their way across what's become a post-apocalyptic hellscape seemingly in a matter of hours, eventually picking up another survivor, Jordan (Owen Teague), and heading to Clay's house to find his estranged wife and son. They soon realize that the source of the cellular mayhem is a character drawn years ago by Clay: a spectre in a red hoodie known in the book as Raggedy but rechristened The Night Traveler for the movie (played by Joshua Mikel), a figure they've all seen in their dreams, who's somehow controlling the hive-minded horde of cell phone zombies.

Cell wasn't one of King's better novels, coming off much of the time like a technologically-tweaked revamp of The Stand with tired tropes taken from any number of older King books (does anyone rip himself off more than Stephen King?). CELL can't even manage to get to the level of an entertaining ripoff. It might've been effective ten years ago, but the overrated 2008 indie THE SIGNAL already covered a lot of this. There's a ton of deviations from the novel, none of them improvements. Most notable is the fate of Charles Ardai, the headmaster of a prep school where the trio first finds Jordan. In the book, Ardai is a major character overtaken by a "Phoner" signal that convinces him to commit suicide. In the film, Ardai, played by Stacy Keach in a five-minute cameo, simply gets impaled after an explosion and the group moves on. There's absolutely no sense of time or place in CELL. It looks like Clay, Tom, and Alice hit the road immediately after The Pulse, but the country is already a desolate wasteland and survival camps have sprung up. It's like an entire season of THE WALKING DEAD haphazardly whittled down to 98 minutes, and much of it shot in such total darkness that it's impossible to tell what's going on. Exposition is mechanically dropped by actors playing characters who sound like they're spouting facts they just yanked out of their asses, just as an easy way to get to the next set piece. This has all the hallmarks of a botched disaster--two years on the shelf; King nowhere in sight to promote a movie he co-wrote; a shrugging Cusack looking pale, disheveled, and bored, displaying almost no reaction to the carnage happening around him; Jackson seeming thoroughly pissed-off that he was talked into being in it; a dated appearance by the long-ago-viral "Trololo Song" as a plot point (it sedates the Phoners)--coming off very much like an unreleasable dumpster fire that was just abandoned by everyone involved. It's 98 minutes of nobody giving a shit. Even by the standards of much of Cusack's recent work in the Cusackalypse Now canon (his stellar turn in the terrific LOVE & MERCY aside), the shit-the-bed CELL is the worst film of his career.

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