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September 25, 2004

Review: Cellular

After the credits began to roll, the first thing I remembered about Cellular was just how little I actually remembered about Cellular.

On one hand, I knew perfectly well that what I had just witnessed was exactly what the Execs in the Studios in Hollywood salivate over. The premise was “high concept”. The story was clear and straightforward. The characters’ motivations were defined. The action was relentless. Everything was perfect.

On another hand, although not necessarily the left or the right, I knew that the only thing perfect about Cellular was that it was perfectly formulaic. I could take the same elements that I praised, and use them to explain how much of a failure the movie was. The premise was a gimmick. The story was too simple. The characters were flat, one-dimensional, paper thin, trite. The action was boring, and useful only as, at best, a distraction, and, at worst, a prevention against finding something, if it existed, redeeming in the narrative.

What was going on?!

The logic of Seinfeld tells us that, ‘a George, divided against itself, cannot stand!’ And yet here I was. Standing! My film appreciation brain cells, or the small portion of my brain that still harbours original, “me-thought-up” opinions, was screaming that Cellular wasn’t even good enough to warrant a strong negative opinion because it was so piddling and forgettable. But the rest of my brain, that which hath been bleached by critics, public opinion, TV, and the endless rules and regulations of the screenwriting trade, was encouraging me to stab that small portion with a screwdriver, ala Pi, and join the Dark Side. Was I daft? Cellular was everything that is great about the movies!

I realize that I haven’t said anything about the movie so far. Allow me to suspend my runaway train of thought, and do so now.

A woman is kidnapped. She calls a guy. He helps her.

Back to the interesting stuff. I usually use the terms ‘movie’ and ‘film’ interchangeably. But, for some not so odd reason, I can’t bring myself to call Cellular a film. Some may view this as a sign that I’m just a prudish film snob (this may be true) who can’t enjoy a film as entertainment (this is not true). But, to counter, I ask: What is entertainment?

That was pretty philosophical, wasn’t it? But, in all seriousness this time, I ask this: What about Cellular is entertaining? Is it the element of the chase that sucks viewers in? (Yeah, I’m answering my own question with a question. Yeah, it’s not a good idea. Yeah, Socrates did it. No, I’m not comparing myself to Socrates. Yeah, I should move on.) Because the chase explanation is valid, and history certainly agrees. It was almost a genre of early cinema. And, when done well, could be captivating. However, even when well done, a chase is shallow unless there’s an attachment to the chasee, chaser, background situation, and consequences of the chase. In Cellular, there’s very little reason to care.

A woman’s life is at stake, but she’s a stranger. A man becomes a hero, but he too is a stranger. The situation, or reason for the chase, is unknown for at least half the film. And the consequences, although clear, are small and affect only a handful of people. And, for that to combine into an effective and enthralling movie, I have to care about that handful. If the fate of the world was at stake, I would automatically be involved. Since it isn’t, the characters have to involve me before I become involved in their fate. In Cellular, this would entail having more than one scene with the two main characters before flicking the unstoppable action to the ‘On’ position. Now that I think about it, maybe having a First Act that’s longer than five minutes would be a more general way of putting it. But would those early scenes “advance the plot”? Would they be “vital”? Nah, they were probably there in an early draft before being cut as “filler” by someone other than the screenwriter. Maybe Cellular isn’t all that structurally sound. I wonder what McKee would say. Probably something akin to: “Hook me into the story at the first page. The first sentence. The first word. And never let up.” Great advice, whatever the fuck it means.

To wrap things up, I’ll say that Cellular, without being good or bad, occupies a deep, lonely cellar in the big house of film. Not only is it a movie, but it is also a slight movie.

Depressingly, for all of us that have a hidden, outspoken, or other form of desire to write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and sell a screenplay, it’s exactly the type of movie we’ll eventually have to pen.

Disclaimer: The preceding was written through the lens of a three-quarter empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and, while honestly representing the views and opinions of the author at the time of authorship, may be inaccurate as to the opinion of the author in the morning through the broken lens of a headache and the taste of bitter, black coffee.


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