Horror films are about what a culture fears. The Call (as much a horror film as a thriller, at heart) is not so much about generic movie fears, like random abductions and physical torture, but alienation and abandonment—heightened by technologies like the cell phone, which has monopolized communication. Today, we conflate communication with being connected, with being plugged in.
"Don't forget me," Casey (Abigail Breslin) pleads with her mother—in a recorded message—in the film's most brutally honest emotional moment. When faced with possible immanent extinction, one yearns for neither scores of contacts nor dozens of virtual "friends" but one true, human relationship.
The dehumanizing effects of technology are at the core of the smarter, more difficult movie hovering around the edges of The Call. Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) works in a glorified cubicle called "The Hive," complete with a "Quiet Room" where 911 operators can reflect after a "bad" call if they inadvertently violate the directions to not become emotionally invested in their caller's situation.
One trainee complains that the hardest aspect of her job is the lack of closure: protocols designed to keep emotions at bay eventually strip the operators of that which makes them human. The operators don't simply use machines; they are pressed to become machines themselves. Even the opening aerial shots present the city as a giant, complex organism, in which the individual voices flooding the call center are no more distinguishable from one another than the cars crawling like insects on the freeway.
After young Casey is abducted and put in the trunk of a car with nothing but an untraceable cell phone, her operator asks her to look out a hole in the trunk for some distinguishing feature of the landscape that might help rescuers locate her. "It all looks the same," Casey laments—which might, unfortunately, be taken as meta-commentary on the boilerplate movie she finds herself in.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as The Call moves forward it stops trying to be fresh or original. Even its visuals become more rote. No shot is as interesting as the first one, and all the creativity goes into keeping the situation in stasis (for this plot, Jordan has to be able to stay in contact with Casey, but not locate her), rather than moving it forward. After the film's set up, we know nothing is going to happen to Casey (or Jordan) until the end of the film, so any efforts to escape have to fail.
But it gets worse: if the first act is slightly original, and the second act somewhat rote, the third descends quickly and enthusiastically into farce. Smart scripts show that characters are smart by having them figure out things that others can't; dumb scripts make heroes look good by having them see (or hear) the obvious clues that everyone else in the film inexplicably missed. Visual references to other, better, movies (The Silence of the Lambs, Blue Velvet) hint at director Brad Anderson's ability to imitate the right movies, but screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio can't keep a setup from not looking like the last five minutes of any random episode of Criminal Minds.