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Cell (2016)

Lionsgate
Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/27/2016

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/13/2016

I realize that this doesn't make me unusual, but in the 80s and 90s, I was a huge Stephen King fan and would immediately devour a new novel as soon as it hit the shelves. However, in the new millennium, life, work, and the fact that I always feel that I need to be writing for this site, my time allotted to reading for pleasure is basically zero. However, I do partake in audiobooks from time-to-time and one that I listened to was Stephen King's 2006 novel Cell. While it certainly didn't measure up to his classic works, it was a breezy read (listen?) and it definitely had a cinematic feel, as it didn't contain a lot of the standard King inner-monologue/psychological wackiness which can be difficult to film. Therefore, I wasn't surprised when it was announced that Cell would become a movie. What was surprising was the long time that it took for the movie to come to the screen. Was it worth the wait?

As Cell opens, artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) has just landed in Boston, having returned from a successful trip where he was able to sell his graphic novel. He calls his ex-wife (Clark Sarullo) and his son (Ethan Andrew Casto) to give them the good news. As he ends the call, he notices that a high-pitched noise comes from the cell phones around him and those using the phones begin to writhe in pain. Suddenly, these people become violent and begin to attack those around them. Clay flees to the subway beneath the airport, where he meets Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson). Together, the two avoid the effected individuals and make their way to Clay's apartment. There, they meet another survivor, Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman). Clay insists on heading upstate to check on his family and Tom and Alice agree to accompany him. As they travel, they begin to observe the behavior of the "Phoners" and realize that violent behavior is just the beginning of the strangeness.

There's no doubt that Stephen King is an American original. However, if you look at his bibliography, you'll see that he often takes classic ideas and makes them his own. (Vampires, haunted houses, killer cars, psychics, etc.) Given the popularity of zombies in the 2000s (and to this day), it's not surprising that King took a shot at the genre, going the 28 Days Later route, as we get out-of-control violent people as opposed to the living dead. Being a Stephen King story, the plot doesn't just stop there, as the "Phoners" began to evolve and their behavior goes beyond what we normally see in this genre. Of course, King works in Maine and boarding schools and several other King tropes. As noted above, the story contained plenty of action and while it got a little weird towards the end, it should have been easy to adapt.

And given that Stephen King is credited as co-writing the screenplay, the movie should stick closely to the book, right? Wrong. From the outset, Cell veers off from the novel, beginning with the setting of the opening. Here it takes place in the airport, while in the novel, it occurred in downtown Boston. From there, we get lots of little changes like how Clay and Tom meet and how their journey begins. These are things which will be of little consequence if you haven't read the book, but they are such minor changes that one has to wonder what King and co-writer Adam Alleca thought that they were achieving by making these alterations. The biggest change is the ending. The book's finale contained a nice action set-piece and a coda which (for King) struck a good tone. The makers of Cell decided to deliver an ending which is not only confusing, but seems to want to compete with The Mist.

Of course, those unfamiliar with the book won't notice these changes. What they will find is a jumbled movie which plays as a mix of unoriginal ideas and silly concepts. The suddenly violent populace looks very similar to things which we've seen in other movies, and there is nothing in the first act to separate Cell from countless horror films in which people are suddenly attacked. Once the story begins to change somewhat, we get a crash course in how some things will work in print, but they don't work on-screen. The "Phoners" begin to move in synchronized patterns, emit noises, and display specific behaviors at night. I can remember that these moments feel fine in the book. In the film, they come across as silly, and border on being ludicrous at times. I can clearly see viewers who are turning in for a Stephen King fright-fest being dumbfounded by some of these moments. Adding insult to injury, Cell has the feel of a movie which has gone through multiple edits. The story is choppy at times and there is an impression that things have been cut out.

I won't be the first to say that the list of good movies based on Stephen King novels is very short. Well, add Cell to the list of duds. Even with King himself involved in this one, it not only fails to capture the essence of the book, but it simply doesn't work as a movie. This is mind-boggling, as Cell was one of King's less weird books and should have been easy to film, At one point, Eli Roth was lined up to direct this movie. As bad as this incarnation is, I feel certain that Roth's would have been worse.

Cell is yet another bad Stephen King movie on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Lionsgate. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no notable grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good and the transfer shows off impressive depth, most notably in the exterior scenes. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.4 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The surround sound effects here are excellent, as many scenes feature audio which flows from the rear channel, creating a sense that we are in the midst of the action. We also get good stereo effects which show off audio coming from off-screen. The subwoofer effects punctuate the action scenes.

The Cell Blu-ray Disc contains only two extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Tod Williams. "To Cell and Back: Making the Film" (12 minutes) is an odd mixture of on-set footage, clips, and comments from Williams and the cast. They talk about the story and their characters in a very random fashion, as there's no over arcing theme to the discussion.

Review Copyright 2016 by Mike Long