Dropping directly into the soup of dreams that is Amazon Prime in the UK, the timing of the exhuming of this unpopular Stephen King adaptation is questionable; events have overtaken the narrative of King’s 2006 book, and not in a good way. Tod Williams’ film makes a direct connection between a worldwide contagion/pandemic and radio-masts, with several scenes depicting characters blowing-up transmitters to set themselves free. The conspiracy theories around 5G make Cell’s content somewhat prescient, but it worth noting that there is no scientific evidence that such a connection could remotely be true.
Cell’s best scene is the opener, in which Clay (John Cusack) watches in horror as an airport lounge disintegrates from civilisation to raw cannibalism in a matter of seconds, a plague affecting only those using their cell-phones. Clay’s phone has run out of battery power at the key moment, and his futile search for a charging point is a clever way to suggest the resourceful way he’ll try to survive, much as John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids sees a patient recovering from an eye operation who is accidentally protected from blinding solar flares.
Clay and his new friend Tom (Samuel L Jackson) swiftly leg it to the countryside, hoping to find Clay’s son and picking up a few stragglers along the way. They end up driving an ice-cream van, another elements lifted from Triffids, and an episodic narrative sees them encounter various enclaves, including Stacy Keach as a headmaster with a sport-field full of zombies in need of ignition.
King himself is listed as one of the co-writers on the screenplay, and there’s lots of evidence of his style here; the way the zombies embody recognisable figures from Clay’s past is toyed with effectively, although his cartoonist past doesn’t land so well. At least the revised ending, which has a metaphorical strength in terms of depicting herd mentalities, packs a punch. And yet there’s also real lapses of pace and judgement, with little tension and a feeling that some key scenes are not included in this final cut.
Cell is something of a curio in that it happens to accurately describe events far beyond most people’s imaginings circa 2016. While not the best work of anyone involved, Cell’s stock rises as an outlandish cartoon version of a real tragedy. As long as you can retain your understanding of the difference between fact and fiction, it’s a decent little slice of apocalyptic melodrama with a relevant message.