‘The Signal’ Review
One might exit the theater after seeing ‘The Signal‘ and feel compelled to run down a list of its seeming influences. ‘Chronicle,’ ‘Dark City,’ ‘The Island’ and John Byrne’s acclaimed ‘Next Men’ comic of the early 1990s all spring to mind, not to mention scores of movies where a bunch of teens foolishly go somewhere dangerous and isolated when logic says they should turn around and run. But in the thick of it, William Eubank’s low-budget sci-fi/horror/thriller is so focused on keeping you in the dark (despite its bright white walls) that these influences don’t seem so obvious. The simplicity and elliptical nature of the script and the empathy from the actors (namely relative newcomer Brenton Thwaites) sustains this crafty and modestly budgeted film’s hook. You kinda sorta know what’s going on from the start, but the movie is sharp enough to toy with you, making it a good deal of fun.
We begin with two MIT genius dudes, Nic (Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp). They are driving cross-country to drop off Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), who is transferring to Cal Tech. Haley’s change of location is somewhat due to Nic intentionally spiking their relationship. He has a debilitative disease, and the canes with which he walks will eventually be traded in for a wheelchair. Despite Haley’s insistence that she’ll never not want to be with him, he’s decided that …
Listen! There’s no time for any more backstory. Nic and Jonah are much more interested in tracking down this hacker that’s been yankin’ their chains (and hacking MIT’s mainframe) and it looks like they’ve sourced him in Nevada. They go for a surprise visit but find a spooky abandoned house and then … something happens.
When Nic wakes up, he’s being interrogated by Laurence Fishburne, friendly but stern, and wearing a preposterous space suit. In time we’ll learn that the gang encountered an alien being – that is, if we take what Fishburne is saying at face value. There’s wheels within wheels of deceit and paranoia until eventually Nic is able to bust out of the ‘Andromeda Strain’-esque underground lab where he’s undergoing observation. (Observation and … manipulation?)
Where ‘The Signal’ is most successful is in slowly peeling back the layers of secrecy to Nic’s odd circumstances. Once the story begins to reveal itself, there may be some who find it cheesy, but audiences more willing to roll with wild ideas won’t be disappointed. There are a handful of solid “aha!” moments that, unfortunately, don’t stand under too much scrutiny to post-screening analysis (believe me, some of us tried) but respect ought to be given to any low-budget film willing to swing for the fences in such a way.
Fishburne’s performance is devilishly vexing; one can see him taking great advantage of Stockholm Syndrome psychology if, in fact, he ever were the presiding physician in an isolated ward with rebellious, skeptical patients. Thwaites, too, is very effective as the boy desperate to find any facts about his current surroundings. He’s quite good at expressing panic, and I must confess that a few of his moments of terror got my heart rate up.
The endgame of ‘The Signal’ is disappointingly unoriginal, but the trip getting there is impressive. This is a great endorsement of Eubank to take on larger films in the future. Should he get his hands on a more fleshed-out (and thought-through) screenplay, he may transform and adapt into a world class pop filmmaker.
‘The Signal’ opens on June 13.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.