August 29, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: CELL

John Cusack, Samuel L .Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach, Wilbur Fitzgerald, Alex ter Avest. Directed by Tod Williams. (2016, 98 min).

You do realize the zombie apocalypse has already begun, don't you? For all I know, you may be one of them.

I'm the proud non-owner of a cell phone. I used to have one, an old fashioned flip phone that was a Christmas gift. I think I used it three or four times during the first few months before retiring it to my office drawer, where it sat dormant for several years. As someone who’s simply not important enough to be available 24/7 (none of us are), I’ve just never needed one. I still don’t.

While preparing to move not too long ago, we decided to purge much of the crap we'd collected over time, either donating it to Goodwill, recycling it or throwing it away. My phone ended up in one of those purge piles. My two daughters were somewhat amused when they saw this ancient artifact, which required the supreme physical effort of flipping it open and actually punching in a phone number. You couldn't use it to text or send emojis in lieu of actual words and sentences. Life was hell back in them olden days.

To this day, I refuse to carry a cell phone, arguably the worst thing to violate society since Ann Coulter. That probably makes me sound like a cranky old curmudgeon who resents and fears advancing technology. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I depend on my computer, personally and professionally, on a daily basis. I love playing games and socializing on Twitter or Facebook with my iPad. I’m able to do 80% of all my holiday shopping in less time than takes for me to find a parking space at the mall. I haven’t written a physical check in over a decade because I pay my bills online. And like every other red blooded American male, I look forward to the day Debbie Does Dallas is adapted into a virtual reality game. As sometime who vaguely recalls the dark days before there was a microwave oven in every home, it’s still rather amazing that we can enjoy a piping hot burrito in only a minute or two (and still complain about how long it takes). The ways modern technology has enriched our lives is nearly boundless (though it has taken some of the fun out of buying records).

Cell phones, though? They haven’t enriched our lives in any meaningful way. They haven’t advanced us as a species or rendered us more intelligent. What they have done is alter our behavior. Computers and tablets are wonderful, but still essentially luxuries we could conceivably survive without. However, we’ve made cell phones extensions of ourselves like vital appendages. Many people feel as naked and helpless without one as they would leaving the house without pants. Cell phones have turned each of us into our own tiny island, oblivious to any part of the world that isn’t presented as text or a happy-faced turd. In public places where people congregate, you see legions of the Cellular Dead shuffle about like zombies in the Monroeville Mall as they tap, tweet and live life through a 3x5 screen.

"Hey, I warned them to stay off my lawn."

Cell phones are also responsible for more deaths than any other device not specifically built for the purpose of killing people. We’re so entranced by their power that we’ve walked off cliffs, stepped in front of trains and plowed into pedestrians during morning commutes. People have died in house fires, drowned in rivers and been crushed in trash compactors trying to rescue their phones. Wikipedia even has an entire page listing notable selfie-related deaths since 2013 (it numbers in the hundreds). Since humans have advanced to the point where we no longer have natural enemies and are able to cure once-fatal diseases with a quick inoculation, perhaps the cell phone is God’s last-ditch attempt at culling the herd.

But there's a more horrific depiction of the current zombie apocalypse brought on by the Cellular Dead. The only difference is we don’t return from the grave to feast on the living (though we certainly kill a shitload of 'em). That’s the basic concept of Cell, based on one of Stephen King’s better recent novels.

The film begins like gangbusters. John Cusack is Clay, a comic book artist arriving at an airport. During the opening credits, nearly everyone around him is talking, texting or taking selfies. Like zombies, they shuffle about the terminal by the thousands, heads down and oblivious of others, all completely absorbed in their own activity (like a roomful of toddlers engaged in parallel play). The only reason Clay himself isn’t among them is because his battery is dead. Then a malevolent cell phone signal suddenly turns everyone using one into violent maniacs. This long, bloody sequence is brutal and harrowing. It’s also how I imagine our population would really react if their precious phones were simultaneously taken away. Whether intentional or not, the fact this signal turns nearly everybody into monsters sends a strong message of how prolifically cell phones have insinuated themselves in our daily lives.

Clay manages to escape the mayhem, hooking up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), a former soldier turned subway engineer. Along with a few others (some who live, some who die), Clay heads off to try and save his son, whom he’s convinced has survived unaffected (though I'm not sure why). Meanwhile, those affected by the signal (“phoners”) begin to evolve. No longer mindlessly homicidal, they become something resembling Romeroesque zombies (you real cell phone junkies look). They gather and travel en masse, behaving as a collective mind as if telepathically driven by some unknown force (though they’ll still occasionally pause their journey to slaughter any unaffected individual they run into).

"Say 'what' again! I dare you, I double dare you, motherf**ker!"

The first thirty minutes of Cell are so intense that it’s a shame the meandering middle act plays like one of those Walking Dead episodes where the cast literally spends the entire episode walking. Secondary characters arrive often, only to die long before we learn much about them, though Stacy Keach appears in a memorable scene on a college campus, where the group douses thousands of sleeping phoners in gasoline before torching them to death. In addition, there are some impressive scenes showing the massive, migrating zombie hordes which remind me of every airport terminal I’ve ever visited.

A lot of wholesale changes have been made to the original story, which is surprising since King co-wrote the screenplay. Compared to the awesomely apocalyptic tone of the novel, the film looks and feels smaller, less ominous, sometimes a bit dumber. However, one significant improvement is the ending. As much as I enjoy King’s work, his climaxes are sometimes the weakest aspects of his novels. For Cell, he’s created a new ending that is as perplexing as it is disturbing. Its sheer ambiguity may frustrate some viewers, but I found it wonderfully bleak.

Cell isn’t a great movie, though certainly undeserving of its current 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Like most films based on King’s work, it lacks the heart and substance that make his best books such page turners, but has some fleeting moments where the master’s touch is apparent. While not particularly memorable overall, Cell’s best sequences (the opening and ending in particular) make it worth checking out.

Featurette: "The Cell and Back: The Making of the Film"
Audio Commentary

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