For more than 20 years, Stephen King film adaptations ruled Hollywood. From Carrie’s $33.8 million grossed on a $1.8 million budget to The Green Mile’s astonishing haul of $136 million, adapting King’s work has long been a treasure map to Box Office gold. How, then, did 2016’s Cell arrive with so little fanfare? Let’s have a look.
After a sinister cellular signal known as “The Pulse” turns most of the world’s population into homicidal, zombie-like maniacs, artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) and a small group of Bostonians band together to survive in the aftermath of the attack. They story follows the group (which includes Cusack’s 1408 co-star Samuel L. Jackson and Orphan’s Isabelle Fuhrman) and their quest to find Clay’s wife and son.
Watching the opening credits, a few things stand out to me:
- The cast is top notch: Cusack, Jackson, and Fuhrman are joined by 50-year screen veteran Stacy Keach and Catherine Dyer (Stranger Things) among others.
- John Cusack, in addition to being the top billed star of the film, is also the Executive Producer. Was he the driving force behind the film’s completion?
- Stephen King receives an actual screenplay credit, not just credit for the story. When’s the last time that happened?
First impressions? This already looks like a winner! So how did I not even know this film was in development? It turns out that Cell was optioned by Dimension Films way back in 2006. They tabbed Eli Roth (Cabin Fever) to direct it. Roth said in an interview with Ain’t It Cool News that he imagined a global “event” scale for the film, that he was extremely excited about the project and that he planned to start work on it after completing Hostel II (which was released in 2007) — once he had a draft of the script.
The draft never came and Roth left the project in 2009, citing creative differences with the studio. “I walked off Cell kind of quietly,” he admitted. “There was just sort of a difference in opinion on how to make to film and what the story should be, and there’s a different direction the studio wants to go with it.”
Enter Stephen King…
A fan asked about the film adaptation of Cell at an Under The Dome book signing back in 2009. Skip to the 9:20 mark of this video. Listen to King talk about how he finished the screenplay and how he got so many complaints about the ending of the novel that he completely changed it for the film.
Cell finally had a script. The production added Cusack in 2012 and Jackson in 2013. Furhman signed on in 2014 right before the film entered full production. Distribution rights were acquired and settled in 2015 and now, 10 years after the release of the novel, the movie is finally available on home video and video on demand!
So, is it any good?
Eh… Not really. It’s not TERRIBLE by any means, but it’s not great, either. The opening sequence is brutal and intense. It sets the premise up nicely. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. A mundane series of zombie film tropes follows. You’ve seen them all before. Still, the acting is decent and the source and execution of the zombie outbreak is fairly unique. You get a jump scare or two. Ultimately, it is better than the vast majority of straight to video zombie fare, but it’s hardly the blockbuster Eli Roth envisioned back in 2006
So what about that ending that King said so many hated? It’s definitely different than the novel. Is it better? I guess that’s up for debate. The movie frankly struggles through the third act to get to the finish line and when it does, the audience is left scratching their heads. I expected more from a King penned screenplay.
Verdict: If you paid $20.00 to see it in theaters, you’d probably be upset. For a few bucks, though, you can do a lot worse.