Film Review: The SignalA genre hybrid that doesn't lack for ideas, but does lack a consistency of creative vision.
Over the course of its 95-minute runtime, The Signal is alternately a horror flick, a paranoid conspiracy thriller, a prison-break picture and a sci-fi action adventure. What it never is, sadly, is a consistently good movie. Co-writer/director William Eubank is clearly motivated by a desire to keep the audience guessing about where his sophomore feature is going to go next, but he doesn't maintain the firm grasp over the proceedings that would make its hairpin tonal and narrative turns invigorating rather than frustrating.
The Signal struggles out of the gate, with a protracted, jumbled opening act (which boasts some found-footage flourishes) intended to get us caught up in the multi-pronged mystery Eubanks has concocted. Three MIT pals—two guys, Nic and Jonah (Brenton Thwaites and Beau Knapp), and one gal, Haley (Olivia Cooke)—are on a cross-country road trip, ostensibly to move Haley to the city that will be her home for the next year. But, in fact, her increasingly distant boyfriend Nic and their mutual buddy Jonah are far more interested in tracking down the source of a signal emanating from the computer of an ace hacker who cracked their alma mater's well-guarded mainframe. That quest takes them to a remote shack in the desert of the Southwest, where they are almost immediately set upon by a mysterious, unseen force. Separated from the group, Nic blacks out and awakens some time later in a medical facility, attended to by teams of scientists in hazmat suits…which is never the way you want to wake up after passing out in the midst of an already bizarre situation.
Nic's imprisonment in this hospital-cum-jail and subsequent interrogation by its poker-faced warden, Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne, consciously and probably unavoidably channeling his Morpheus persona as the man with all the answers, despite always talking in questions and riddles), kicks off what is by far the most effective portion of the film. The production design and cinematography knowingly echo Michael Crichton viral thrillers like The Andromeda Strain—right down to the bulky suits and beige-colored walls illuminated by flat fluorescent lighting—while Eubanks finds subtle, effective ways—like Nic's increasingly desperate conversations with an unseen Jonah through an air vent—to suggest that things are not what they seem. (Though, if you remember reading the Roald Dahl short story "Beware of the Dog" in junior-high English class, the end result of this narrative gamesmanship may not be so surprising.)
Unfortunately, Nic goes and breaks the surreal spell cast by the film's second act by busting out of his prison, newly armed with special powers and an understandable desire to get himself and his friends the hell out of Dodge. Doing that, however, requires navigating a landscape that seems at once both familiar and alien, populated by people eager to slow him down. And at that point, The Signal itself slows down, spinning its wheels as the director delays advancing the story to its by-then fairly obvious conclusion. The predictability of his endgame would be less distracting if the characterizations were sharper and the pace tighter, but Nic is a thoroughly bland hero and Eubanks lacks the flair for low-budget action exemplified by more resourceful genre filmmakers like George Miller or Neil Marshall. The Signal does boast some good ideas and effective moments, but for the most part its ambitions and execution of those ambitions are on different wavelengths.
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