Cell (2016) Review

Cell is a promising film that never reaches its potential. Despite having a solid cast and a great premise, the film is hamstrung by too small of a budget and an incomplete script. Cell presents an engrossing mystery, but without an explanation by the end of the film, audiences will be hard pressed to feel satisfied.

Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is an artist who draws dark imagery for graphic novels. After closing a big deal, he’s ready to return to his wife and son, but as he’s making plans, people around him listening to their cell phones suddenly suffer seizures. Then they get back up and explode in outbursts of violence, maiming and killing anyone around them. Only those who weren’t listening to their cell phones are unaffected. Clay runs for his life, teaming up with other survivors, like Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman). Together and with other survivors they meet on the road, they discover a potential safe haven where Clay’s son has run off to in the hopes of living through this nightmarish reality. But with more and more people becoming “Phoners” and with these monsters beginning to evolve, Clay must get to his son to ensure his safety.

Based on the Stephen King book with the same title, Cell hardly bares any resemblance to the source material (at least based on the book synopsis). Nevertheless, as its own story, Cell isn’t a bad idea, especially with the current zombie-loving culture we find ourselves in. There are few things more terrifying than having normal people around you suddenly turn violent against you without any provocation. Worse yet, there will always be an urge to try to reason with the mindless mob simply because they look like normal humans. Resigning to the reality that reason is impossible is a special kind of despair that makes this type of survival horror that much tougher to bear.

The script is where the film falls the flattest. For some reason, the events in the movie feel very accelerated. Within two days survivors have already adjusted to their circumstances and begun plotting ways to strike back. Within three days a safe haven has been established and signs have been randomly scattered directing survivors to it. Within four days there are already hardened Phoner killers traveling the countryside. It all feels like too much too quickly. The reality is that the audience is meant to assume that the survivors have been surviving for much longer, evidenced by some dialog about one character having stayed awake for six days straight, which is longer than the amount of days the audience has seen. The problem is that the film doesn’t make any effort to show the passage of time. There’s very little visual change in the characters. They don’t look any thinner, dirtier, or hairier. As such, audiences won’t feel like they’re part of a protracted struggle.

There’s also the issue with the strange subplot regarding the main villain in the film. Just about halfway through the movie the survivors all experience nightmares involving a scary man in a red hooded sweatshirt. Clay reveals that he had drawn a character that resembles that man, but Clay’s character was a demon. The red hooded man makes appearances throughout the rest of the film and not only in the survivors’ dreams. As a setup, the red hooded man is an interesting concept, especially when he’s tied to another character’s imagination. It certainly produces intriguing questions in audiences’ minds about the origin of this disaster and if Clay somehow has something to do with it. Unfortunately, that question is never answered.

In fact, there’s no explanation to the phenomena at all, which is infuriating given how the film ends. Without spoiling the ending, suffice it to say that Cell doesn’t deal fairly with audiences. Typically, for the third act of a film like this, the protagonist should know why they’re doing what they’re doing and how it will overcome the antagonist. Ostensibly, the film delivers that, but then takes it back as soon as audiences receive it, exchanging it for a nonsensical ending instead that reverses everything audiences just watched – like a character waking up from a dream. When the credits roll, it will be difficult not to feel robbed.