Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is a professional artist and designer, and he has good news for a change: his graphic novel series that he has been working on for some time now has been accepted by a publisher and they're going to give it a big push, so who knows where he can go with it? He's optimistic, and at the airport in Boston where he is going to catch a plane back to see his estranged wife and son, he calls to tell them about what luck he is finally enjoying. Or at least he is until the battery in his phone dies, and as it is busy he cannot find a recharger that's free, so calls on a payphone when suddenly he notices everyone on their phones are screaming in pain - and once they've finished doing that they've turned into homicidal maniacs!
Cell was based on a bestselling Stephen King novel, one which acted as a palate cleanser after his lengthy completion of his Dark Tower series. It was a standalone effort that told of an apocalypse, not intended as part of his grander tales that lasted over many books though even so he couldn't quite help himself from including a few references, and a film version seemed the next obvious choice. Eli Roth said he was very keen to adapt it, and was in the running before the project entered production hell and he left what was looking like an increasingly poor proposition until stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (playing survivor Tom, King's first gay character of any significance) were brought onboard.
They had previously starred in a middling adaptation of one of the author's short stories, 1408, but could this look more promising, being made from King's script that he had consciously penned to "fix" the problems many of his readers had had with the source, most specifically its open ending. However, that was added to by Adam Alleca, and though the filming went ahead, more ill fortune awaited with a lower budget than perhaps was needed and to add insult to injury it could not secure distribution and took two years before it was finally released on one of those simultaneous platforms across selected cinemas and the internet. As if that were not enough of a lowly fate to what could have been a major horror movie, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.
Was this because there was something resolutely middle-aged about the end result? The notion that the younger generation who could not go anywhere or do anything without being clamped to their phones was guaranteed to bring out the grumpy old man or woman in anyone who was not as in love with the technology, and the film missed a trick by not placing a scene in a cinema where an antisocial patron on their phone could have been turned into a mindless, violent zombie to cap off the general mistrust of the device. Yet since almost everyone did use them by the twenty-first century, the potency of the idea that they could real damage, be that physical or social, was a strong one, and demonstrated what would have been a potentially scarier premise to the phone fans than their agnostics.
Except there was no way the phone fans were going to entertain the concept that their beloved communication gadgets were bad for them, so there may have been an uphill climb for Cell before the cameras even rolled. Still, it did not deserve the lambasting it received, as considering the amount of resources it had it very adeptly put across its paranoia of the technology and managed not to render the plot as misanthropic as it might have been thanks to a nicely played, central "family" of survivors who included Clay's upstairs teenage neighbour (Orphan star Isabelle Fuhrman). They didn't stick entirely to the original novel, but it was close enough to do interesting things with it, including King's aforementioned altered ending which if anything was bleaker than what he had achieved on the page, and wound up with a note (or a few notes) of dark comedy that was not going to win it many friends. Cell was just weird enough to stand out from the zombie genre and its variations which had become samey for some time, but by not playing by the rules it failed to find an appreciative audience, which was a pity. Music by Marcelo Zarvos (and Warren Shaw's sound design is excellent).