Unless you are speculating in the science fiction of the future, any story that has a basis in real world technology is going to end up dated. Such is the case with Stephen King's Cell, written at a time when cell phones were common but still used primarily for phone calls and not much else. Our biggest concern related to them at that point was whether or not they were generating enough radiation to give us cancer. It was also written when the 9/11 terror attacks were still fresh and new and we were all reeling from such a huge event. King takes those two things and weaves them together, and beyond a few technical details, still manages to write something relevant for today.
When I first read Cell I enjoyed it, though found myself a little frustrated by the ending. Revisiting it this time for the film, I have since been exposed to two classic works I had not the first time. Night of the Living Dead and its sequels is the first, and while the "phoners" in the book have more in common with the crazed zombies of 28 Days Later than the slow moving ones in that film, I do think there's a bit of influence in regards to how humans react to such a crisis. King however mostly stays positive in this one, showing a group of individuals who quickly form a family unit rather than turning against each other. There is a quick appearance of a bible thumper and a couple nasty people, but I can't help but think that post 9/11 King was trying to focus on the good in people rather than the bad.
The other work is I Am Legend, and the influences here are much stronger. Much like we learn that the vampires in that book are more than just mere monsters, the phoners form a society as well. I appreciate greatly that King allows them to evolve as the book goes on - starting out like those aforementioned crazed zombies but becoming more like drones with a shared consciousness. It's an interesting idea, and it makes you think about them more like people instead of the "just kill them all" mentality that most works will give their monsters. The main characters in the book initially do have that kill response, and they end up being punished for it. It's a unique idea and one that helped it all feel interesting to me instead of just a general quest for survival and finding out whether or not our main character's child made it out alive.
Clay Ridell is that main character, and he's a slight twist from King's usual writer protagonist in that he puts drawings to his writings. The graphic novel he's selling also had some interesting similarities to The Dark Tower series which I figured King included as a wink and nod to fans. There's not a whole lot to Clay, but that allows us to put ourselves in his shoes, as any of us can understand the desire to find out how our loved ones are doing when disaster strikes. Clay's companions are much more well defined and real.
Tom McCourt is not King's first gay character, but he seems to me at least like the first one who just happens to have that as a characteristic and not something to be made a huge deal of. Tom starts off panicky and seeming like he's going to be Clay's tag along that you're just going to have to deal with, but he then gets a hold of himself and even picks Clay up when he doesn't seem like he's going to make it. If I'm ever being forced to cross the country in a post apocalyptic world, I want someone as sensible and collected as Tom at my side. And we'd find a way to bring our cats along for the journey.
Alice Maxwell is a teenage girl who does a lot of hard growing up once the disaster strikes. She's smart and capable and loves horror movies, but she finds a single baby sneaker while they are walking, and she picks it up and can't stop fiddling with it as a kind of nervous twitch. It's the kind of small detail that makes her feel real, and you both understand why she does it and desperately want her to stop doing it as much as Clay does.
On their journey from Boston to Maine they run into a single remaining student at a prep school and his headmaster. "The Head" is a classic professor type from King's novels, expunging philosophy and making deductions about the nature of the phoners and whether the normal humans have a right to survive anymore. The student is Jordan, a classic King kid who faces one tragedy after another and somehow comes out of it okay.
The story is downright short by King standards and moves pretty quickly, but never feels overly rushed. The idea of humans developing telepathy because their brains are rebooted is an interesting one, though I'm not as crazy about the insistence King suggests that it was done by accident - apparently the never explained terrorists that set up the attack only wanted to make people crazy and kill each other, but I say they could have planned to make them drones as well, perhaps planning to use them for an army or other such purpose. Ultimately I don't think King wants you to spend too much time thinking about the whys, as much as he's just trying to find a way to make it so that humanity won't remain this way forever. And while our heroes destroy the main colony gathering in the northeast of the US by the end of the book, you do have to wonder what's going on in the rest of the country if not also the world.
Development for Cell as a film began not long after it was published in 2006, with the original plan being for Eli Roth to direct. Roth couldn't reach an agreement with the studios however, and eventually left the project. King wrote a screenplay for it, but it mostly sat on the shelf until 2014 when the movie was finally filmed with director Tod Williams instead. After being filmed it sat on the shelf again - never a good sign when it comes to movies. I was starting to think it would never be released at all, or perhaps given a straight to video release like Mercy, when it was finally announced this year that it would have a limited theatrical release as well as video on demand. So slightly better handling than Mercy but not much.
Quite frankly, I understand why. I'm not familiar with Williams' work before this, so I don't know how he stands as a director in general. Nor am I familiar with Adam Alleca, the other credited screenwriter beside King. But I can tell you specifically that some poor choices were made for this specific film. It's been a while since I watched 28 Days Later, but I feel like the success of that film proves there's a good way to film crazed maniacs attacking other people and not have it feel incredibly goofy. Unfortunately that's exactly what it feels like here. The one thing I can say is that you can tell the various extras were having a ton of fun on set - but the problem is that results in you being able to see them resisting cracking a smile beneath a lot of their rampage. The lack of frenetic camera angles and movements just really highlights how silly it can all be.
And while the book's phoners evolve and change over time, the movie's never really do. They develop the ability to create the fax machine like screech that came originally from the phones and therefore infect others when close to them, but they never stop rampaging. This added trait basically makes them exactly like zombies, just toning down the gore factor since they don't want to eat you. Their hive mind manifests in that once one phoner sees you, they all then know where you are to come after you. I imagine this choice to keep them mostly feral was done to try to keep up the tension and the action, but frankly it just doesn't work for me.
Add to that the fact that none of the characters feel particularly fleshed out or real, and you've got disaster. Gone is Tom's compassion for his cat (in fact the cat now belongs to Clay, and zero mention is made of abandoning it when they leave) or any real heartfelt moments where he and Clay bond. Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack are doing the best they can with the material, there's just not a lot there beyond moving them from point A to B. Tom now mentions he's divorced, and his ex is a man, but it seems like a half ditched attempt to provide personality rather than a real one. Isabelle Fuhrman is also fine as Alice, but she really gets no personality at all beyond "teenage girl."
The phones are updated to reflect current times, and while in the book Clay was hoping his son was bored with his phone and therefore not using it, he now says he only uses it for texts and games, not calls. Tom even keeps his cell phone (which I frankly think is a stupid thing to do given what's going on) and texting does seem to not be an issue with the pulse, though Clay's son only responds in garbled text and they never try to talk to him again.
There's a really great scene in the book when the day after the heroes decide to blow up a large number of phoners who are sleeping in a field, an army of phoners show up, stare menacingly at them, slaughter other humans they found to make a point, and even place Alice's baby shoe on the doorstep in front of them (she lost it in the blast) to prove a point. In this movie, it's widdled down to just a mound of burned cellphones waiting for them.
The main protagonist in the book is called the Raggedy Man by some and The President of Harvard by others, because he wear a red hoodie with Harvard on the front. He's chosen as a recognizable figurehead and appears to them all in dreams, informing them that they have been marked as insane outsiders for their crime. It's acknowledged that as a hive mind he's not really a leader and has no real powers, he's just the chosen one at the time and if he was killed someone else would just take his place. In the movie it's radically different. The Harvard part is dropped for I think obvious reasons, but while Alice does mention him labeling her insane, everyone else seems to just have dreams where he torments them. He also just happens to be the main enemy of the graphic novel Clay was writing before all this happened, as if he had a vision of him. Another character calls him The President of the Internet for no logical reason I can find, and suggests that killing him will stop it all. When Clay eventually hits him with a truck and shoots him multiple times with a shotgun, he then looks to be immortal.
In the book, the dreams they are having turn out to be had by all humans, and other people they meet while travelling refuse to associate with them because of their being marked. In the movie they stop in a tavern for the day, and the people are more than happy to accept them and it turns into a very strange party scene. Everyone drinks and Tom dances with an older lady, while Clay draws Alice's picture while speaking a non sequitur about angels and humans and calls her an angel. This is totally not foreshadowing that she's going to die soon. No, wait, of course it is. In the book it's a shocking moment, where a human decides to ignore the phoners' orders of leaving them alone and hurls a concrete brick out of a window, striking Alice in the head. In the film the older lady is drawn to the front door of the bar when she hears a yelping dog, but is instead changed by the phoners when she leans in to listen. She lets them in and chaos ensues, until she ends up hitting Alice hard in the back of the head with a baseball bat. Isabelle Fuhrman does a good job with the death scene, but there's just not enough between these characters at this point to really feel it.
As I said earlier, the ending of the book is a bit frustrating. Young Jordan deduces that there's a worm virus in the programming that turns everyone into phoners that is causing them to start to act differently. The heroes blow up the gathering of phoners who were holding them for some kind of trial and escape, but Clay stays behind because he knows his son was around somewhere and he's hoping he walked off before the blast. He finds him, and he's basically acting like an animal, unable to speak or take care of himself. Jordan suggests this half baked theory that if you exposed a phoner to another phone signal, it might reboot them and make them better, but he doesn't really know. The book ends with Clay holding the phone to his son's ear. It's not entirely unlike The Mist, but whereas that ending felt hopeful, this one just clearly wants you to decide for yourself one way or the other what happened. It feels like a bit of a cheat, or like King couldn't decide himself.
I bring up The Mist because it's worth noting that King said he preferred Darabont's super dark ending to the movie. People complained to King about the ending of Cell, and he reported in 2009 that he had changed it for the screenplay. Given the long development time, it's hard to say if the ending we get here is King's doing, Adam Alleca's, Tod Williams', the studios'... who knows. But it's such a mess that I almost feel like they were intending to pull something like Clue, where different theaters would have gotten one of three different endings, but someone messed up and put all three of them on the video on demand release. This is what happens:
1. As I mentioned earlier, Clay hits the leader of the phoners with a truck and shoots him up. He searches the crowd of phoners surrounding them and a cell tower for his son, and his son eventually emerges from them. He and the others start emitting the pulse sound, and we see the leader is still alive. Clay pulls a very old cell out of his pocket and dials a number that is attached to another cell phone inside the truck that acts as a trigger to a lot of C4. Huge explosion, fade to black. That explosive device does come from the book, which is how the heroes escape there.
2. Despite standing in the middle of all the phoners when the explosion happened, we see Clay and his son, who is 100% cured, walking in the woods on the way to catch up with the rest of the heroes.
3. We then cut back to the cell tower and the phoners circling it, with Clay now among them. His son is nowhere to be found.
I think the idea here is that the explosion never happens, that in fact Clay has simply joined them and he's getting a vision of a happy ending in his mind. Like maybe every single phoner is now living out some happy little wonderland in their heads, while something else takes over their bodies and has them do whatever. But we certainly never saw any hint of that before this point, and the cuts between the three scenes are so tonally off that it's not handled well at all.
As a stand alone film, this is an uninspired, not very scary zombie knock off with a poorly executed twist ending. As an adaptation, it strips the characters of their personality and the plot of its intricacies and leaves only a by the numbers adaptation behind. I can't recommend it on any level.