A decent enough King adaptation
Before we had smartphones, life was incredibly dull. We had no way to document what we had just had for dinner, we had nothing to look at when sitting at the back of a bus, and we had no way to understand our friends’ most innermost thoughts. These were dark times indeed!
I’m being sarcastic, of course. While smartphones can be a useful addition to our lives, they can also be a menace. They can distract us from the beauty of the world around us, cause us to waste time when we should be doing something more productive, and they can give us a false sense of self-worth when we rely on social media for approval.
Phone addiction is a real thing and it’s something we need to face up to. Author Stephen King already warned us about the dangers of smartphone dependency in his 2006 novel Cell (and the subsequent movie) and in his short story, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, which was published in the anthology If It Bleeds; he further warned us about the dangers of our miniature screens.
John Lee Hancock’s adaptation of that story, currently streaming on Netflix, attempts to demonstrate King’s themes. In one of the opening scenes of the movie, for example, we are introduced to a high school cafeteria where the students are segregated not by their social standing or personal interests but by their phones. In one corner of the room sit the Samsung kids, while in another area of the hall sit the iPhone owners, and there are several other phone-related groups, with each student sitting glued to their screens instead of having actual face time with the people situated around them.
One student is Craig (Jaeden Martell), who begins his first few weeks at high school without a phone. He feels as if he is missing out but when he is later given an iPhone as a Christmas present by his widowed dad, he starts to wish he had never been given such a device in the first place. This isn’t because he succumbs to phone addiction or online bullying but because the elderly gentleman that he befriended several years earlier starts to send him messages.
These texts would appear to be quite harmless but as Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), the gentleman in question, is now dead, Craig’s life is upended when he realises the deceased fellow is communicating with him from beyond the grave. Not only that, but the ghost of Harrigan (or whatever he has now become) is also wreaking vengeance on the people that have upset Craig.
How is Harrigan doing this? Well, the movie doesn’t really explore this aspect of the plot. This might be disappointing if you’re expecting a fully-fleshed-out ghost story as director Hancock has given us a movie that is quite abstract in nature, with a bigger focus on Craig’s bond with Harrigan and subsequent grief than out-and-out horror.
As such, this isn’t a movie laced with bloody scenes of vengeful terror or jump scares to make us drop our phones in fright. While it does touch on the supernatural, the writers of the movie are more interested in themes of loneliness, friendship, and the evils of technology.
It doesn’t particularly matter that the film isn’t scary as this is more a character piece about a lonely young teen and his friendship with the elderly billionaire of the title. Martell, who is no stranger to the world of Stephen King after taking on the role of Bill in It: Chapter 1, is perfectly believable as the sensitive young boy whose life takes a strange turn after his elderly friend dies. Sutherland gives a fine performance too as the crotchety old man who forms an unlikely bond with Craig and together the two do much to paper over the weaknesses in the script which doesn’t always capitalise on the movie’s creepy premise.
But despite the lack of any real horror, the movie still manages to engage throughout most of its runtime. This is partly because of Hancock’s atmospheric direction and partly because of the emotional screenplay that draws us into the bond between Craig and the old man. The scenes between the two of them are a joy to watch and it’s for this reason that the movie starts to falter a little when Harrigan dies although Martell still keeps us invested in his character’s plight.
Mr Harrigan’s Phone doesn’t quite succeed in its study of smartphone addiction so it probably won’t be the catalyst to you giving up your phone in favour of a book or any other screen-less pastime. But it’s still worth a watch if you can avert your eyes from your phone for a little while as it looks good and is performed well, even if it doesn’t quite make an impact as either a horror movie or a satire on technology.