When will characters in science fiction movies ever learn? If you get an ominous “signal,” be it from an alien moon that is far off your cargo ship’s charted course or simply the location of some online prankster seemingly making mischief, just don’t take the call. Yet, that is exactly what the lead trio of characters do in William Eubank’s The Signal, a visually amusing sci-fi yarn that makes the best of its well-worn story of familiar government spooks and the little green (or gray) men that they seem to covet far too much.
Ostensibly the story of three teens on one last road trip before the couple in the group, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Hailey (Olivia Cooke) breaks up over collegiate paths, the picture really belongs to the titular siren song that lures them into a world of forbidden knowledge. Nic and his MIT buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp) are also a pair of hackers who have decided to use their cross-country drive as an excuse to track down a rival hacker named Nomad to his point of origin. Little do they know that they are being set up for a “Catfish” scenario, save that the catfish is actually terrifying instead of being a crazy old lady. Still, after their encounter with Nomad, it is safe to say some craziness is still in the cards for their reallocated bodies, which is more than enough to pique the government’s interest.
The genre darling of Sundance this year, The Signal continues a recent trend in indie horror to blame it all on the little guys upstairs who can conveniently be absent for most of the picture. Unfortunately, the result is not so much the terror left unseen as it is the suspense and entertainment left unfelt. Not until the movie’s robust and twisty third act does the picture kick on its tractor beam long enough to pull audiences in to its illusion of a sci-fi hellscape of the mind, with some admittedly stunning special effects. And for the most diehard that will be enough. In the meantime, everyone will be forced to rely on some friendly veteran character actors filling in the margins, particularly Laurence Fishburne.
In the role of Damon, Fishburne plays the government bigwig/medical expert that dominates the second half of the movie. After Nic wakes up from his forgotten encounter with Nomad, it is Damon who is near sole contact with the human world when hidden in a bunker somewhere deep, deep underground. Reprising his image as the gatekeeper of knowledge, Fishburne walks through the movie’s running time with a bemused smirk across his face, enjoying the irony implicit of Damon refusing to offer Nic either the blue pill or the red one. As the “helpful” soothsayer that incrementally becomes antagonistic toward a bewildered and oblivious Nic, Fishburne provides a solid foil against Thwaites’ noticeable charisma.
Thwaites is an actor that Hollywood is about to bet big on. Having already enjoyed a small role as the Prince Charming character in last month’s Maleficent, Thwaites is on the verge of potential stardom with this year’s The Giver and 2016’s Egyptian mythology epic, Gods of Egypt. And you can see much of that promise in the part of Nic Eastman. On the page, Nic probably read as generic teen lead who is defined entirely by his recent tragic disability, which has forced him to use crutches for probably the rest of his life. But as written on Thwaites’ anguished face, Nic is at the very least sympathetic in his terror that successfully transfers into rage by the movie’s super powered finale.
That actual finale is quite the showstopper that morphs from the movie’s internalized suffering for the disparate teens under government quarantine into something of a superhero hat trick. The plot point on which this shift is pinned is not nearly as clever as Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio, and William Eubank’s screenplay thinks that it is, but it surely ratchets up the long overdue tension for a real crowd pleaser, realized by a highly inventive special effects team. It’s thus a shame that it chooses to close the book right when the story reaches its most tantalizing revelation.
For fans of self-styled serious stories about bright lights in the sky, The Signal might offer a momentary pull towards discovery. But despite some sprightly visual feats and solid performance work, including from a cameoing Lin Shaye as a creepy church lady, this is one beacon that is best ignored. Of course, Nic and friends wouldn’t be the first to shirk such prophetic warnings either…