The technothriller, which manifests itself mostly in science fiction and the great action blockbusters, nicely suits both the style and content of an era dominated by mechanism and ingenuity. Such films both feed and stimulate the appetite of an apparently insatiable audience for ever great quantities of shootouts, fireworks, car chases, and assorted metamorphoses, all those special effects that many people mistake for cinema.
Because the art of film itself depends to an extraordinary degree on the wonders of science and technology, the medium quite naturally encourages constant innovations in its magic, ever more spectacular demonstrations of its capacity to inspire wonder.
The new crime and suspense drama, Cellular, qualifies as an odd sort of technothriller, a chase movie that employs one of the most common and certainly the most portable of the everyday wonders the culture has come to expect, the ubiquitous and versatile cellular telephone.
Whatever the plot and characters, the cell phone occupies the intellectual and emotional center of the movie, displaying all its up-to-date features, from call waiting to memory, to video camera capability, which allow it to serve not only as an instrument of communication, but also the source of action, the means of resolution, even the weapon of choice to defeat the villains.
Cellular follows two parallel paths of action that eventually intersect, and two major characters who communicate throughout via the telephone, but only meet at the end of the picture. A science teacher (Kim Basinger), kidnapped by a group of violent men, who kill her housekeeper and later abduct her son and her husband, manages to fiddle with the wires of a smashed telephone to make a frantic call, hoping to connect with some number somewhere.
She ends up accidentally calling the cell phone of a feckless surfer (Chris Evans) driving in the Southern California traffic, and persuades him to go to the police. Since a melee at the precinct house preoccupies all the cops, Evans sets out on his own to beat the gang to her son's school and follow them to Basinger.
That simple if rather implausible situation propels a great deal of frenzied movement, landing Evans in a series of increasingly complicated and dangerous pickles. Violating dozens of traffic laws, he speeds to the son's school, hoping to intercept the boy before the gang arrives, steals a security guard's car to follow them, holds up an electronics store to get a charger for his phone so that he can stay in touch with Basinger, and eventually carjacks a Porsche at gunpoint. The plot pushes him through a number of other twists and turns at high velocity, and finally brings him to discover the identity and motivation of the kidnappers.
Basinger's increasing danger and desperation, Evans's mounting frustration as he copes with recalcitrant cops, traffic jams, road accidents, and several close escapes from the villains, all the while maintaining contact on the cell phone, imparts considerable emotional energy to an already tense situation. The director heightens the tension with constant crosscutting between the two characters, so that their respective perils occasionally run parallel. He also thickens the texture by involving a stolid, decent, somewhat comic police sergeant (William H. Macy) in the search for both Evans and Basinger.
While keeping a breakneck pace by means of the frantic pursuit and the various obstacles Evans encounters, the movie also grounds its plot in a solid mystery. The identity and motive of the kidnapers gradually emerge through the logic of the chase, which reveals almost accidentally but entirely plausibly the reasons behind the crime. Considering the recent history of law enforcement in Los Angeles, it hardly seems surprising that the villains are rogue policemen with a special and desperate agenda of their own.
The film reaches its climax in the hallowed space below that venerable structure beloved of the private eye novels and films, the Santa Monica Pier, where Evans once again demonstrates the versatility of his cell phone, which turns out to be the perfect weapon to deceive, capture, and defeat the criminals. The extraordinary technology of the everyday suggests a new dimension to the technothriller --- not a supercomputer, a robot, a spaceship, or even some James Bond gimmick, but that remarkable little piece of electronics so many people use and take for granted.
In a sense, Cellular updates those telephone thrillers of the past, applying contemporary ingenuity to the tension of desperate communication, so that as in for example, films like Sorry, Wrong Number, Dial M for Murder, and even the recent Phone Booth, the telephone itself becomes the central subject, even the real character of the movie and a most satisfactory one at that.
Cellular (PG-13), starring Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, Eric Christian Olsen, Jessica Biel, William H. Macy; directed by David R. Ellis. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Greece Ridge; Regal Henrietta.