The Signal is a great looking film that tries to be many things and falls short in most of those categories.
The first few minutes are great — a young boy tries to win a toy from one of those claw machines when Nic Eastman (played by Brenton Thwaites) approaches on his crutches to help. It is a nice introduction of Nic’s character before he meets up with his best friend Jonah (Super 8’s Beau Knapp) and his girlfriend Haley, played by Olivia Cooke. The three embark on a road trip to get Haley to Caltech, where she plans to spend the next year.
On the way, Nic and Jonah realize they may have discovered the location of a notorious hacker named Nomad, who caused them significant trouble at MIT, and decide to make a detour to teach him a lesson. What exactly they plan to do when they find him is uncertain, but off they go. This whole first act takes a mumblecore approach before suddenly channeling Paranormal Activity when the boys discover a derelict old house that they think might be the headquarters of Nomad.
Suddenly, Nic finds himself incarcerated in a sterile government facility where scientists wear anti-contamination suits. The scientists meander about in complete silence with the exception of Dr. Damon, played by Laurence Fishburne. When he’s not being questioned or tested by Dr. Damon, Nic is kept in isolation. As time goes by and more is revealed, less becomes explainable, and the science fiction elements grow far more pronounced. Eventually, Nic manages to find his friends and escape the facility, but the outside world has become just as perplexing and askew.
Much of the credit for many of the film’s high points can be attributed to the unique eye of cinematographer David Lanzenberg, whose lush composition delivers many elements that make The Signal a far more pleasurable viewing experience than it would have been otherwise. Despite some of the more frustrating moments where found footage and shaky-cam techniques are employed in an effort to build tension, the overall visual landscape of the film does give viewers some quality for the price of a ticket.
The acting is quite good as well. Laurence Fishburne seems to be impersonating Laurence Fishburne at times, but at least that is entertaining. His particular brand of ultra-calm demeanor in the face of crisis can slow anyone’s heart rate to a crawl. Seeing the appearance of great character actor and genre favorite Lin Shaye was also a treat. Finally, the three young leads also do their best to add dimension to their sparsely developed characters — and it’s from there that most of the film’s problems stem.
There are lots of ideas bandied about, but they are underdeveloped and unsatisfying. The conceit of genre films is that they can work when they lead us into a world where ludicrous ideas seem possible. In The Signal, the genre elements stand out too sharply against the overall naturalistic tone. To make things more difficult, director William Eubank employs some tiresome methods in the attempt to get the audience to relate to his characters. How many times can we cut to flashbacks of better days in slow motion during present-time scenes of conflict? It is all surface — a greeting-card method to get us to care, but with little reflected in the actions of the characters.
When the credits rolled, it was surprising to see that the running time was just over an hour and a half. With all the different genres thrown in, as well as the overuse of silent and slow-motion scenes, the film felt significantly longer. Not boring, just longer. There are some interesting things to see, and those things might even be worth the price of a movie ticket to some people, but ultimately The Signal will leave the audience wishing for a little more to latch onto. Eubank certainly has a talent that’s worth watching out for in future efforts, so long as he has a script that’s more developed.
The Signal opens on Friday, June 13.