J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Stephen King’s Cell

Going from Boston to New Hampshire is probably always a good idea, but especially so when there is a zombie apocalypse underway. Whether or not so-called “phoners,” who were turned into rage-filled hive-mind killing machines by a sinister cell phone transmission, count as proper zombies hardly matters. The same rules apply: regions with low population density and a high degree of gun ownership offer the best survival prospects. However, finding his son will take priority for Clay Riddell in Tod “Kip” Williams’ adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Just as Riddell deplanes in Boston, all heck breaks loose. His battery is conveniently dead, or else the mysterious pulse would have transformed him into a murderous berserker as well. Not surprisingly, the airport turns into a horror show, but he is able to make a subterranean getaway with Tom McCourt, a transit employee with military training and few social ties. Lying low for the night, they join forces with Riddell’s teenaged neighbor Alice Maxwell and head towards New Hampshire.

Along the way, they liberate a stash of guns and observe the phoners flock-like behavior. They get a further lesson in phoner behavioral psychology from a prep school scholarship student and his headmaster. Apparently, phoners reboot or install their Microsoft updates overnight, leaving them nocturnally vulnerable. However, phoners will continue to evolve, as the hardy band of survivors learns the hard way. Even more ominously, the sinister leader of the phoners makes regular appearances in their nightmares. It is particularly distressing for Riddell, because he is the spitting image of the Mephistophelean character in his prospective graphic novel.

In a way, Cell sort of resembles a light version of The Stand, as it follows the core group making its way through apocalyptic chaos, towards the ultimate destination of Kashwak, a rumored Native American dead-cell zone—but with zombies. Of course, The Stand is probably the one King novel that could really use an editorial diet. Fans still pay premium prices online to buy the original published version his editor had duly tightened, preferring its pacey focus to the bloated “author’s definitive edition” now available.

Be that as it may, Cell is not the greatest King film to hit screens (regardless how the author feels, that would still probably be Kubrick’s The Shining), but it has its virtues. To his credit, Williams has the good sense to fully capitalize on Samuel L. Jackson’s screen persona. Although his character is relatively subdued by his standards, there are plenty of scenes involving McCourt, firearms, and attitude. The phoners are also all kinds of creepy. They are definitely fast zombies, or whatever. Even though Clay Riddell is technically the lead, he is a pretty conventional stock character, but that also means John Cusack’s blandness is rather fitting. On the other hand, Stacy Keach adds some welcome panache as the headmaster.

Like any good zombie movie, viewers should not get attached to a lot of the characters in Cell. For some reason King and co-screenwriter Adam Alleca altered the conclusion of his novel, so instead of one reasonably serviceable conclusion, we get three contradictory and unsatisfying endings. Still, it is always hard for genre films to stick the dismount. It is just kind of worth it to see Samuel L. Jackson do his thing and watch Boston get trashed. Recommended for its merits and its appealing messiness, Cell opens this Friday (7/8) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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