Cell (2016)

First published by Sight & Sound, September 2016

Review: Stephen King famously objected to the liberties taken with his 1977 novel The Shining in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation. Yet in co-adapting (with Adam Alleca) his own 2006 novel Cell to the big screen, King has licensed himself to introduce substantial changes to the original, and the results are likely to confound and wrongfoot anyone entering this film with expectations of a straightforward narrative path, and to send viewers racing backwards to reconcile the film’s different plot strands into a coherent whole.

Viewed on the simplest level, Tod Williams’ film is akin to David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry’s The Signal (2007): a technophobic nightmare in which a mysterious pulse suddenly emitted by mobile phones turns users into murderous maniacs. Yet the initial resemblance of these ‘phoners’ to virally-infected, rage-fuelled Noughties-style ‘zombies’ soon gives way to odder behaviours, as they evolve before our eyes, forming strange hive-mind ‘flocks’ and beginning to broadcast as well as receive. Trying to get a grip on these Protean creatures runs in parallel to any attempt to pin down the film’s meaning. For while Cell is obviously satirising our enslavement to digital devices, and the groupthink that can ensue from this, it simultaneously implies that the source of the ‘phoner’ outbreak may be protagonist Clay Riddell himself (John Cusack, in his third King adaptation after Stand By Me and 1408), a graphic novelist whose demonic iconography has started invading the dreams and haunting the collective unconscious of his fellow non-phoners.

Clay comes with his own demons. For as he races cross-country to his estranged wife and beloved son, we learn that he walked out on them a year earlier to become an independent artist – a  decision he has been regretting ever since. Key to Cell is this conflicting desire to be an individual and to belong to a group – and it seems significant that the mind-merging pulse should strike immediately after Clay’s attempt to reconnect with the family life which he had previously regarded as a ‘dark’ time of co-dependent drudgery and despised corporate designwork. His fellow traveller Tom (Samuel L. Jackson, Cusack’s co-star in 1408) may see the remaining non-phoners as being “like bugs with the dumb luck to avoid the giant’s boot”, but the impression persists that Clay is more epicentre than arbitrary survivor of the outbreak – and that his bid to return to the domestic treadmill of his past life is also a circular journey back into the dark.

Amid the horrors of its monstrous imagery and its disarmingly unsentimental approach to characters’ deaths, Cell also offers considerable black humour via its ironic soundtrack choices (Ring My Bell; You’ll Never Walk Alone), its dry dialogue and its setting of key climactic scenes in and around an ice-cream truck. As Clay makes new “friends”, engages in literal flame wars, and (beta-)tests the new system to its limits, he might after all be less an off-the-grid rebel than just another cog in the wheel, or cell in the ‘organic network’. And where Clay was never able to finish his own graphic novel, the film splits itself disorientingly into more than one resolution. It’s brain-bending (and Riddell-ing), as an individual’s unravelling psyche and a global techno-apocalypse end up running the same circuit.

Synopsis: At Boston airport, illustrator Clay calls his estranged wife Sharon and son Johnny, hoping to reconnect. After his phone battery runs out, a pulse transforms phone users into crazed killers. Together with fellow survivors Tom and teen Alice, Johnny sets out to Sharon’s New Hampshire home. Infected ‘phoners’ start flocking together and acting in hive-mind unison. The three help headmaster Charles Ardai and pupil Jordan set fire to phoners sleeping in a school playing field, but the ensuing explosion kills Charles. The four survivors have nightmares involving a red-hooded figure, ‘Raggedy’, from Clay’s unfinished graphic novel. Survivors in a bar – along with Alice – are killed by now nocturnally active phoners. Campers Ray and Denise warn that supposed safe zone Kashwak is in fact a trap. Believing phoners are in his head, Ray gives Clayton his ice-cream van and a phone detonator before blowing himself up. After finding Sharon turned phoner, Clay heads alone in the van to rescue Johnny from Kashwak. There, surrounded by a ring of shuffling phoners, Clay confronts Raggedy, and detonates the explosive-rigged van. Clay heads off with Johnny after Tom, Jordan and Denise. Or is the already infected Clay just imagining this, while shuffling along zombie-like in the circle of other phoners?

© Anton Bitel