“Cell” was troubled from the moment it was optioned in to a movie. Rather than become a success tale like “It,” it instead was left to tread water as a limited release that was quietly tucked away on the VOD market, and is now a two dollar purchase on streaming services. It’s not surprising since “Cell” is a film that could have used a much better script, a lot more development, and about twenty more minutes in its run time. In its state it feels utterly incomplete, half baked and rushed, along with pairing two stars that, at their best, are magnificent and at their worst, make a good living phoning in (shut up) performances. Tod Williams had the chance to jump on the ball and really provide us with a frantic and scary commentary about our over reliance on technology, and he fails.
John Cusack plays Clay Liddell a graphic novel artist who is flying home to visit his son and wife. While at the airport, he’s horrified to witness a mass of bystanders driven insane and mad by mysterious signals over their cell phones. With those driven to become violent rampaging zombies known as “phoners,” Clay teams up with a subway worker named Tom, as played by Samuel L. Jackson, and his neighbor Alice (Isabelle Furhman), and they travail the apocalyptic wasteland hoping to find his wife and son, before they’re killed or turned in to one of the legions of hive minded monsters. For the first twenty minutes “Cell” manages to keep me hooked on to what’s unfolding, then it suddenly dips in to an incoherent and disjointed festival of nonsense. Ideas and characters are tossed in to the movie and then thrown out and nothing ever really gels or feels like one really cogent experience.
Rather than a single epic about a man learning about this new apocalypse while fighting for his son, “Cell” instead watches like a web series. There’s absolutely zero emphasis or preamble for new characters, so when Isabelle Furhman’s Alice comes knocking at Clay’s door drenched in blood and holding a knife, there isn’t much focus on her at all. But we do have enough time for a painfully dull scene of the characters hiding out in a smoky bar with a trio of elderly patrons, where characters Clay and Tom discuss classic rock and philosophy. The stars are either in the film for sake of convenience to move the story forward (Stacy Keach is exposition man!), or just have literally nothing to do (Owen Teague). As for Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack, both men constantly look like they’re on the verge of yawning throughout the film.
Their characters also treat the apocalypse like an inconvenience more than anything. There are also a ton of ideas injected that are never explored. Did Clay invent the red hooded villain Raggedy Man? Why does he have a mental connection with him? Is the Raggedy Man actually Clay? Why did the “phoners” evolve? If Clay is special why does Tom dream about him, too? And what, if anything, did the finale signify? Is Clay going to lead the “phoners” to his friends? Is the whole Cell phenomenon international? What happened to the people they left on the train? Are we ever going to get a DJ Liquid prequel? “Cell” is abysmal zombie movie fodder. In the end, you’re better off just watching “Train to Busan.”