A victim of its own lofty ambitions, William and Carlyle Eubanks’ The Signal is a visual impressively, occasionally inspired, and thoroughly surreal science fiction thriller that often stumbles under the weight of self-consciousness.
It’s also a nicely stitched-together pastiche of genres, starting off as a college-kids road movie, veering briefly into Blair Witch country on the way to The X-Files territory, and then coming into rest in… well, that would be a huge spoiler.
In a nutshell, MIT student Nic (Brenton Thwaites, Maleficent), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), and his friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) are on a drive through the southwest when they decide to take a detour to track down and confront a hacker they’ve been playing cat-and-mouse with.
The trio’s strange interlude at a remote, ramshackle house ends with a blackout. Nic awakens in an underground research facility run by Damon (Laurence Fishburne), a scientist who never seems to remove his bio-hazard suit and whose interrogations are friendly yet vaguely menacing. That’s when the real weirdness starts, as Nic tries to grasp his predicament, find his friends, and escape.
Any more than that would be saying too much, as a great deal of The Signal‘s affected Twilight Zone-by-way-of-Stanley Kubrick narrative hinges on the details and twists being carefully doled out, and the movie is definitely best seen cold. Not all is explained, what is doesn’t always add up, and astute viewers are likely to anticipate at least a few of the details; still, the Eubanks’ story flows well enough to carry us along to a conclusion likely to surprise and/or frustrate many.
The cast of young unknowns proves to be impressive, especially Thwaites, who holds his own well against Fishburne, who spreads a creepy layer of kindliness over an undercurrent of “There’s something not quite right with this guy but ‘s not sure what it is.”
William Eubanks is a former cinematographer, and as such he gives the production a big-budget veneer on a small scale, getting his money’s worth with a limited effects budget and gracing the movie with a distinctive and arresting visual style. He has a great eye for his locations, be it a backwater hole-in-the-wall diner, sterile and fluorescent-lit hospital corridors, or the middle of the Nevada desert. These are often peppered with split-second flashbacks to more idyllic times and places, fleshing out the protagonists in a surprisingly effective shorthand.
The Signal is likely to be a divisive film. What you get out of it depends on what you take into it — and then some — and how open one is to going of the beaten path and away from the norm. That said, in these days of overblown cinema product, it scores a fair amount of points for creativity and fearless originality.