starring Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, Eric Christian Olsen, Jessica Biel
screenplay by Chris Morgan
directed by David R. Ellis
by Walter Chaw At last, a film for all the yahoos with a cell phone soldered onto their ears--a giant eighty-minute billboard for Nokia with characters constantly extolling the virtues of what the Chinese call their hand-engines: "Amazing thing these new cell phones. They take digital video, remember the last fifty numbers that call it..." Stuntman-turned-director David Ellis follows up Final Destination 2 with Cellular, its top-heavy gimmick flick dreamed up by the king of high-concept, one-trick ponies, Larry Cohen, who cobbles together the story at the heart of the thing from the odds-and-ends of his last telecommunications thriller, Phone Booth. It's Strange Days married to Nick of Time, Falling Down, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where Asians are still Orientals (and boy, are they stupid) and black people are sassy back-talkers working at impound lots. Yet, understand that it's not so much racist as it is prehistoric--ossified and bone-weary.
In fairness, there is some amusement to be had by checking off the ways in which every single cell-phone function provides one major plot point to the piece. Ryan (Chris O'Donnell heir apparent Chris Evans) is a vacuous SoCal dude on the mend from a break-up with vacuous SoCal chick Jessica Biel when he receives a cell phone call from a kidnapped and, needless to say, distraught mommy named Jessica (Kim Basinger). A very turn-of-the-century way to get rid of troublesome women, Jessica has been sequestered away to an attic--and Cellular, as it turns out, is a lot like Mildred Pierce: fierce lioness protecting her brood. (Thing is that Basinger is only really good playing some sort of sexual victim; once she turns into Ripley, it's almost done submissively. (The secret word is "jarring.")) Jessica is able to make this call because of the miracle of a rotary phone that not only is hanging onto its fragile existence after being smashed by a sledgehammer, but is the second such heroic antique phone to play a key role in a film in 2004 (recalling the miracle-antiques in The Day After Tomorrow). The catch is that the phone call is a chance thing and hanging up could spell the end for our resolute heroine. This means that Ryan can't drive into tunnels or take the stairs up the inside of a building (though he appears to forget this later, just like he forgets to hold the phone up to his ear sometimes)--and it also means that it takes an unusually long time for well-meaning cop Mooney (William H. Macy) to jump into the fray.
Cellular opens with a swooping shot through a peephole into Jessica's gilded life--another take on The Clearing that seems to have as its prime mover the Rodney King beating, of all things. It's a day late and a few dollars short is what I'm saying, and it's cobbled together from so many loose parts that it's sort of amazing it doesn't unravel in the projector. By sneaking in through the peephole, the suggestion is that we're about to have another look (like we did in Phone Booth) at a sort of post-9/11 lack of security, where all of our peccadilloes are laid bare before the altar of technology. What we get instead is a weird sort of fetishizing of technology in a movie that venerates the almighty cellular signal as an archetype as powerful as the RKO radio tower was to previous generations. It's the logical progression of the cyborg film, really, as Cellular progresses with its parade of half-human, half-machine automatons, the retiring Mooney the only human mooring. (Macy's part is so incongruous that it had to have been rewritten/ad-libbed by the bored actor.) It's not about paranoia, it inspires paranoia--Cellular's view on humanity is pretty dim when the only hero is a cell phone that inspires the largest exhalation of cathartic emotion in the piece upon losing its life.
The pace if fast, but it drags anyway--especially in moments where terrible transitions and senseless composition call attention to haphazard assembly. For all of Final Destination 2's faults, it worked with a sort of cruel clockwork precision; all Cellular does is exhaust with its puerility and inconsequence. Lord knows I couldn't care less if Ryan gets back together with his ex-girlfriend--and what's the subplot doing in the picture in the first place but to put a couple more seconds of meat on an anaemic frame? Forced, frustrating filmmaking, the only thing worse than the picture itself is its closing-credits sequence: almost as long as Cellular and somehow even more cynical. Defenders of movies like this believe that so long as all the suggestions are in the film, there's no need for there to be any sort of conscious structure or resolution--more, they believe that movies are sometimes just movies instead of mirrors darkly of our culture at this moment. Cellular is a movie about machines made in a machine-like way, one of dozens of films from the last couple of years that dance around the topic of humans without humanity and the machines we use to substitute for our AWOL souls (next up: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence). It's time to prick up your ears. Originally published: September 10, 2004.