Monday, June 20, 2016

Movie Review – Phantom on Cell

Ten years ago Stephen King released a book called Cell.

The last thing I had read was the final Dark Tower book. I loved it. I loved the ending. As much as it wasn’t closure, it did feel like the completion of a cycle. Between the epic journey that had just been portrayed and the roughly two decades of fiction that had satisfied me so much, I felt like the guy had to run out of good ideas sometime. And perhaps after King was hit by a van in 1999 I felt like the guy just deserved a break.

I should have known better. The voice that flows through King wasn’t going to stop just because his body took a hit.

I liked the book a lot. It was a sort of reaffirmation for me that King still had it. I’ve liked some of his books more than others, but there’s never been one that I outright disliked. I haven’t read it a second time yet because that’s something I rarely do anymore, but I think it ranks among my favorites of King’s work.

Side Note: I have read all of the Dark Tower books at least twice. The first three I have read several times each. The same goes for The Stand, IT, Pet Sematary, and a few others. There are plenty of authors that I enjoy and even adore, but nobody else speaks to me like Stephen King does. So it bothers me a bit that I haven’t gone back and re-read Cell, but it’s just how it is. And might have worked out better for my enjoyment of the film adaptation.

Cell is a good movie. Whether you’re a fan of King’s work or just a fan of things that depict the miserable and inevitable end of human civilization, this movie is well worth your time, right up until the end. More on that in a minute.

I hadn’t read the book in a decade, but I still knew the basic story and sequence of events – introduction to protagonist(s), world goes nuts, road trip, craziness and violence, wunderkind explanation, explosion. I think that’s the basic outline that I had in my head; the things that were essential to the plot.

Without getting spoilery, Cell covered those basics quite nicely. For those that don’t know, the plot is that some sort of pulse hits every cell phone on the planet simultaneously and drives everyone that was on their phone at the time bugfuck crazy. Naturally the main character is across the country from his family and has to navigate through a landscape populated by crazy people to find them and discover whether or not they were affected. It’s a great twist on the end of the world scenario and the way that things develop creeps me out even now just thinking about it. Oh, and the Pulse is constant, so they still can’t use cell phones after the initial event.

The pacing was solid with very little, if any, fat. The movie runs a tight 98 minutes, so they didn’t have much room to screw around. It could have been a 98 minute movie or a four hour miniseries (or, heaven forbid, an ongoing program), but I’m happy with what we got. The antagonists aren’t exactly centralized and the main point of view comes from the primary protagonist, so there’s not a lot of decompressing to do without fundamentally altering the story.

Not that that’s ever stopped Hollywood before.

The cast is excellent. John Cusack is your lead, with sidekicks Samuel L. Jackson and Isabelle Fuhrman. The three have a great chemistry and watching Cusack and Jackson together is interesting, as to me they seem like elements from completely different eras of my life. Stacy Keach shows up later and I’m always happy to see him. I don’t recall where it came from, but I have a soft spot for that guy.

If you have read the book and are concerned about the scale of the story, don’t be. While I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of this world, for the purposes of the movie it was explored as thoroughly as it needed to be. The narrative unfolds with great economy.
As for the end – meh. I didn’t find it satisfying, but that lines up with the end of the book even though the two are different. I still recommend you check this out, as every other aspect of Cell displays skill in both storytelling and acting. Overall I dug it and will probably watch it again at some point.

WORTH NOTING: Cell was filmed in and around Atlanta. The Starlight Drive-In features prominently, which I got a kick out of.


I watched the movie on an On Demand service, which had me concerned about the quality. It’s had a troubled release history – having been dropped and replaced several times – and after its On Demand premiere is receiving only limited theatrical release. I don’t know the story behind all of this, but it sure isn’t because of Cell’s quality. Even some of the bigger effects are absolutely up to snuff, which is one of the things I was concerned about.

With such a… let’s say reserved release, I figured the budget would be too small to allow for important, world-establishing things like airplanes dropping out of the sky or big set pieces. My concerns were immediately dispersed by the opening scene, which features Cusack in an airport getting across the idea that his relationship with his family is Complicated. Things quickly go bad, as the Pulse hits and everyone goes crazy.

I have to say – this opening sequence is one of the more powerful ones I’ve seen lately. It’s a pretty big deal seeing bad shit go down in an airport. And bad shit goes down. When I say people go crazy, I mean they’re tearing each other to pieces and running full-force into walls and knocking their own teeth out and displaying a level of lunacy and a lack of self-awareness that is horrifying.

Then the planes crash.

Seriously – it was almost like the movie read my mind and was like, “Here you go, non-believer. Now strap in.”

I’m not going to do a plot synopsis because my goal here is for you to want to see the movie, but Cusack survives the carnage and starts his journey to his family, picking up other folks who happened to not be on cell phones when the pulse hit. If I were picking nits I’d say that they got too comfortable with slaughtering humans too easily. The infected people aren’t zombies or even noticeably subhuman other than acting like maniacs and Cusack, Jackson, and company display very little conflict about killing other humans. Granted, ferocity and suddenness with which the attacks occur leave zero room for meditation, but a little remorse would be nice.

Although I have to admit that Jackson’s character’s practicality is one of the things I loved about Cell. He makes the right decisions and doesn’t fuck around. There’s one point where the group are faced with an infected child and Jackson’s character simply blows him away. There is no other choice, but other characters in other movies might have hesitated, potentially bringing calamity down on themselves or someone else. While the core trio’s comfort with killing is odd, it’s also kind of nice that a partial result is that they don’t do anything stupid to move the plot along.

I am extremely tired of this sort of thing – in movies, television, and in comics there seems to be a tend where the protagonists are most often dealing with fallout from stupid decisions they have made rather than actively progressing or at least reacting to adversity from an outside source. We have a bunch of dumb heroes that are forever cleaning up their own messes. Cell’s characters are not that. Throughout the movie they make rational, intelligent choices. Sometimes they’re a bit bloodthirsty, but they always feel like what you think characters should be doing.

You know how you’ll sit there and watch a movie and think – or perhaps even shout at the screen, “YOU DUMB FUCKS! BURN THEM WHILE YOU CAN!” while you sit there helplessly watching as the dolts try to sneak through a field of sleeping monsters or some such thing. Cell doesn’t do that. These guys behave like the audience wants them to behave – “This could be a problem and rather than pussyfooting around it and waiting for it to come back and tear our throats out, we are going to BURN IT TO THE GROUND.”

I liked that. A lot.

As for the end, here’s a super spoiler, so don’t read it if you don’t want to know. Just go watch the movie and have a fun time for an hour and a half. But I have to mention the end because it was so bad after such a good movie.


In the book there’s a sort of subplot where some people got degraded pulse signals and just had their brains reset rather than being reprogrammed (which is what the Pulse did). The main character’s son received a degraded signal and is just sort of messed up but no crazy. The dad decides that exposure to the Pulse might reset his addled brain, so he makes a call and holds it to his son’s ear and the book ends.

Seriously. That was it. Shitty ending.

Stephen King knew it was shitty, so he rewrote it for the screenplay.

Into an even shittier ending.

In the movie, Cusack find his son. Then he activates a truck full of explosives and blows a bunch of infected and himself and his son to hell.

Then there’s a scene of him and his son walking down a trail talking about how they’re going to find the rest of the survivors.

Then there’s a scene of Cusack walking in the infected horde, clearly infected himself.

It was a garbled bunch of shit that made the ambiguity of the book’s ending even worse because it seemed clear that something definitive was supposed to have happened, but the movie failed to make it clear how it happened or what, exactly, it was. It was almost like you were supposed to choose which one you liked best and just pretend the others didn’t happen. Seriously – it felt like the editor fucked up the final cut and just left two alternate endings in rather than sticking them in the Bonus features menu. It was super sloppy.

Otherwise, though, Cell was a pretty kickass and enjoyable flick with a healthy dose of social commentary thrown in. But not preachy stuff, stuff that you look at and can’t deny. I don’t know what the story is with the release problems, but shitty ending aside I feel like it deserves to be seen by a larger audience than it probably will be.

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