The Signal (2014)
95 min., rated PG-13.
Sharing the same title as the nifty 2008 techno-horror item, "The Signal" might mark William Eubank as an interesting filmmaker to watch, it being his second feature, but beyond a strong visual sense and proficient work with actors, this lo-fi, mind-bending sci-fi mystery is purely a calling card for a better film in Eubank's future. Slick effects and technical ingenuity definitely belie a budget of $4 million, but take away the aesthetics and the film has very little else to recommend it. It defies categorization in wanting to be a few different things—imagine "Joy Ride" becoming "The Blair Witch Project" and then taking a turn into "TRON" and "Robocop" and "The Twilight Zone"—although as a piece of storytelling, the characters are written with little depth or context, the three acts do not crystallize, and the story frustratingly never makes much headway. Perhaps its problem areas would be fewer if "The Signal" were solely a short.
Suffering from the early stages of multiple sclerosis and relying on crutches to walk, former athlete Nic Eastman (Brenton Thwaites) and his best friend, fellow hacker and MIT student Jonah (Beau Knapp), make a road trip out of taking Nic's girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to California for school. Along the way in a motel, Nic and Jonah receive coded messages from a hacker who calls himself "NOMAD" and has infiltrated their school and personal servers, so the boys decide to take a detour to confront the mystery man. The whereabouts of "NOMAD" bring the three to a spooky shack in the middle of the desert, and that becomes their final memory before facing something—how do we say this?—otherworldly. Next thing he knows, Nic wakes up quarantined in a government facility and questioned by the mysterious Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne). He is told that he has made contact and is contaminated, while Haley rests in a coma. Nic's only chance to know what is happening is to break out.
When we first meet Nic, Jonah and Haley, "The Signal" is a road movie and the story seems to already be in midstream, as the male hackers have been tracking a rival hacker all along and the romantic couple has a big decision to make for their future. So far, so compelling. Once the setting switches to a sterile-white underground research facility, the film still remains mysterious and intriguing before slowing to a crawl and grinding its pacing to a halt just when it ought to be gaining momentum. Admittedly, there is a "Where's Waldo?" moment from Nic and Jonah's video footage that chills, but then an escape sequence, where every biohazard suit is apparently blind to the sight of Nic in a wheelchair and dragging Haley behind him on a hospital gurney, is just too incredulous. And an ominous experiment with a cow turns out to lead nowhere of note. From there, writer-director William Eubank's screenplay, co-scribed with brother Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, doesn't deepen so much as keep things consistently murky and withhold answers. Though the film was reportedly constructed as an allegory for rational and emotional thinking, one does not feel those deep-dish intentions coming through, nor is there much to the characters to carry a strong emotional punch, just half-baked ideas that could have formed something stellar.
Aussie native Brenton Thwaites is turning out to be a sturdy young actor with rising-star potential, having appeared in this year's "Oculus" and "Maleficent" and three more movies in the can. As Nic, he earns sympathy early on in a nice, telling moment with helping a young boy retrieve a toy from a claw vending machine. As Haley and Jonah, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp manage some appeal out of their deficient roles, too. As Damon, Laurence Fishburne knows how to play cool, humorless and suspect, and makes sauntering down an antiseptic hallway in a hazmat suit comically creepy. If there has to be a cheerfully nutty surprise, it's Lin Shaye as a religious nut named Mirabelle, who picks up the recently escaped Nic and Haley in the desert, but the inexplicable reason for her presence is really anyone's guess.
Where "The Signal" ends up going is like a joke that falls flat — the setup is interesting and seems to be leading somewhere, and the punchline should be a kicker, but it's less than satisfying and not as mind-blowing as it might think it is. No buts about it, filmmaker Eubank's sophomore effort is technically well-made. David Lanzenberg's lush cinematography is great to look at, along with some striking imagery (the final moments on a stretch of highway are pretty staggering), and it does most of the heavy lifting. Otherwise, the film fails to connect all the dots or hang together as a cohesive whole. The final destination isn't really worth a slowly deflating journey.
Grade: C -