Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Signal is a flashy, ambitious piece of science fiction that forgets that character development and narrative coherence make a story more compelling. The film is writer-director Will Eubank’s second feature, an effort that demonstrates his passion as a director but also his knack for inconsistency in writing. The film centers on three hackers: Nic (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), and Jonah (Beau Knapp). Nic suffered an injury to his legs in a race that left him with forearm crutches and daily struggles, yet his passion for his work remains. Haley is heading to college, the purpose of the three gathering for a road trip, but Nic knows that she will have countless opportunities, both professionally and romantically, that he doesn’t want her to miss. Essentially, he breaks up with her. Jonah joins for the trip because him and Nic are best friends, and they code and hack together. They face a familiar threat, though, when a genius computer hacker demonstrates his power by messing with their technology and leading them to a random place in Las Vegas.
They discover a creepy, abandoned house that they soon found out to be a trap. When everything goes dark, Nic wakes up in a laboratory room shaded with all things white; for much of the film’s second act, the characters are surrounded by white, bright colors and primaries like blue and red. Here, the protagonist encounters men in hazmat suits, with their representative being Damon (Laurence Fishburne), a man who speaks mostly to confuse Nic and further his psychological torment. Nic wants to know where his friends are, what’s happened to him, why he’s in a wheelchair, and where the hell he is. He has a lot of questions that they are just not willing to answer. The film sets up this premise with intrigue and paranoia, a tonally compelling build that allows the audience to constantly struggle with what they are seeing in attempts to understand the central premise.
Every bit of information doled out, however, seems to further the convolution of the plot and emphasize the one-dimensionality of the characters. Nic is largely developed through flashbacks that are emotionally triggered and mute; they are seen as memories that he revisits often. Thwaites is a talented actor when the script allows him to dig into Nic’s emotional torment, but much of the film asks him to be concerned and confused without the audience knowing much of the context. Nic’s relationship with Haley is defined by their break-up, since that’s the starting point for the audience, but Cooke is a genuine non-presence. Her character is mostly silent and submissive, a love interest without much direction or purpose other than to aid the protagonist. And Jonah is given some emotional heft if there were any context for his outbursts and crazed mannerisms; the characters are so thin that the audience has nothing to grasp onto. When characters cry and seem distraught, I could care less.
The Signal has ambition, though, aiming to address themes of technology, mental instability, and the presence of otherworldly beings. Yet they never mesh coherently into a singular narrative. A scene where Nic and Haley wander the corridors of the lab feels like they are the luckiest people in the world, only to have that squandered as their despair knows no bounds. It’s a dark, manic look at their struggle to persevere, but there’s nothing really at stake when watching most of the film. Eubank is a tremendously talented director, though, since his film is beautifully framed and shot, visually evoking an early Kubrick and Lynch with his deliberately negative camerawork. The last scene makes the audience think rather than explicitly laying out the themes, a testament to strong science fiction that attempts to show rather than tell. The problem is, there has to be context to show the audience the meaning of the film. The Signal remains distant and thin despite a promising and lofty premise.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)