Give “Cell” points for narrative expediency. It wastes no time bringing about the complete collapse of Western Civilization. Over the elapsed time of a single phone call, graphic novelist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) watches the normal bustle of his surroundings at a Boston airport erupt in a full-scale brawl. The inciting incident isn’t an act of domestic terrorism, but a mysterious electronic pulse that turns all of the terminal’s cell phone users into unrepentant rage monsters. Because Clay was on a pay phone, he’s able to watch in horror as employees and passengers alike descend into a series of increasingly horrific, animalistic displays.
Despite the indiscriminate nature of these newly-birthed beasts (some are violent, some seem intent on self-harm, some seem content to convulse), the sight of innocent bystanders getting launched over escalator handrails and a member of the airport security detail ripping out the intestines of its drug-sniffing German Shepherd sure sets the stage for a gruesome, unrelenting spin on the zombie film.
But in adapting the Stephen King novel of the same name (King shares screenwriting credit here with Adam Alleca), director Tod Williams (“The Door in the Floor” and, perhaps more tellingly, “Paranormal Activity 2”) bypasses an innovative premise with a technophobic hook for something far more conventional than its opening salvo might indicate.
After “Cell” introduces some questionable plane crash effects and ticks off its post-disaster survival story checklist (mouthy, lone dissenter trying to dissuade everyone from the obvious escape route; obnoxious survivor getting his comeuppance after he drifts ahead of the pack), Clay teams up with Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson), the train driver whose transportation map helped lead the pair to the safety of Clay’s apartment.
From there, Williams makes it clear that this is not a story overly concerned with the mechanics of how this electronic virus was delivered. (When Clay wonders if texting might compromise their security, Tom shrugs with the relative intensity of someone being asked if they might want to order a pizza.) Both Cusack and Jackson forego the usual zombie panic, but that calmness signals a crippling lack of urgency rather than a welcome dose of patience. It’s a workmanlike approach to survival, but it gives everything that comes in their sojourn across the Northeast a listless quality.
This leaves “Cell” as a character study with a dearth of character. As the pair make their way to reunite with Clay’s ex-wife and son, they add Clay’s upstairs neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) and prep school stowaway Jordan (Owen Teague) to their survival roster. But this crew of would-be redeemers is populated by individuals whose defining characteristic is that they didn’t happen to have a phone in their hands at the time of the tech-pocalypse. Small talk can fill in who these people were before everything went south, but the film has nothing more to say about their situation aside from the mechanics of narrative convenience.
That storytelling emptiness is echoed in the overall look of the film, one that uses our commonly-accepted dystopian iconography as a shortcut to existential dread. “Cell” is proof that there are only so many ways you can show a deserted city street, with abandoned cars all situated in their neat, post-swerve arrangements and smoke billowing from strategically placed high-rises.
Beyond those usual Doomsday tableaus, there’s not much distinctive visual or written flair to sustain “Cell” beyond the expected. It does have its ultra-dark comic moments (Clay literally pries a gun from an NRA member’s cold, dead hand) and the way the unthinking undead communicate with their malevolent cellular overlords is unsettling when it’s first introduced. But even a scene of terrifying mass murder is rendered pedestrian by all the conventional turns that lead it there.
After some stupefying plot-necessitated character decisions and a visit from a mustache-twirling Stacey Keach, “Cell” doubles down on the metaphysical underpinnings that run through its occasional hallucinations and nightmare sequences. It’s a trajectory that’s likely offered a more solid foundation in the pages of King’s novel. But here, it feels grafted onto a generic zombie story as a way to offer anything out of the ordinary. It all culminates in a muddled, twist-adjacent ending that seems to have as much to do with obsessive soccer fanbases as it does with the film’s preceding 90 minutes.
Perhaps it’s better than a preachy alternative, but there’s still no greater message to “Cell” (except that using a Bluetooth headset to call someone from an airport bathroom stall should be punishable by zombification). This is the undead equivalent of fast food. Some might find comfort in all these known quantities. Those looking for anything of substance would do better to wait for an upgrade.
“Cell” opens in limited release and VOD on Friday, July 8.