You know how a great plot twist makes you immediately want to watch a movie over again to look for all the clues that went by right under your nose? “The Signal” isn’t like that. Rarely have I seen such promising rising action be met with 30 minutes of a direction the film has no business going in. William Eubank directs this horror-sci-fi debacle that’s earned its place in the history book, filed under “most aggressive third-act squandering of an intriguing premise.”
It’s the story of what happens when MIT student Nic (Brenton Thwaites) helps his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) move cross-country and his tech-geek friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) convinces him to take a detour to track down a hacker that’s been messing with them. They’re headed towards a moment of great satisfaction for anyone who’s been pestered on the internet – some twerp kid will be forced to physically confront his e-victims – but they arrive at the address of the hacker and find an abandoned, derelict house in the middle of the Nevada desert. There, in the middle of the night, as they edge their way into the empty house, is when they first come into contact with “the signal” (I think, at least – you don’t actually hear the titular sound effect showcased in the trailer).
The group of friends black out, and they’re in trouble. It’s never a good thing when you wake up in a hospital bed and the doctor is wearing a Hazmat suit. Unable to use his legs or remember what happened in the desert that night, Nic gathers the only details available as he is pushed down the hallway of some strange research facility: he is underground, he is injured, he’s not at a hospital, and he’s considered somehow dangerous.
At this point, 30 minutes into the film, the comparison that came to mind was if Shane Carruth had made a horror film. Fans of “Primer” and “Upstream Color” will see this as the great compliment that it is. But give “The Signal” another hour to turn a good thing sour and by the end it’s something more like a cheap trick wrapped in a compelling, would-be-smart casing.
Eubank (who also wrote the film with David Frigerio) dabbled in all departments of film production – shooting, editing, producing – before making his directorial debut, “Love,” in 2011. While that film amounted to little more than a vanity project for the American rock band (Angels & Airwaves) that produced and scored it, “Love” showed the same ballsy work ethic and a for-the-stars reach that makes “The Signal” promising in some regards. Eubank stretches his four million dollar budget into a sci-fi jaunt that, while flawed, cuts no corners in its overall presentation. The set design is particularly successful, using subtle lighting gags and an otherworldly electronic score to muster more unease than many all-out horror films achieve.
Damon (Laurence Fishburne), the head administrator of whatever government project Nic and his friends find themselves caught up in, provides a slow drip-feed of information to Nic. Fishburne is up to many of the same tricks as his iconic Morpheus role from the “Matrix” films – all-knowing, yet intentionally obtuse, brushing off any questions about exactly where the three friends are and why their every move is being evaluated. He’s the perfect casting choice to embody the politely foreboding atmosphere that works so well in the second act: everything is just fine, but no, we cannot let you leave.
With a road-trip comedy opening act, a horror sequence in that dilapidated desert house, and a taut, claustrophobic middle act in the research facility, Eubank has the bases fully loaded for the third act but never delivers anything approaching a grand slam. This is a case of the screenwriter not earning his ending. “The Signal” loses its creepy grip with some highly suspect sort-of-sciency fiction leading towards a finale that chips away at any sense the previous 90 minutes had. It’s a nice, long chunk of a very bad movie butting its way into the low-key mind-bender that we signed up for. The one redemptive element of the haywire sci-fi jumble that is the end of this movie is a tremendously frightening performance by 70-year-old b-movie veteran Lin Shaye.
William Eubank, like Neill Blomkamp, will be given a giant Hollywood film in the next decade, and I look forward to it. He’s a resourceful, ambitious filmmaker with an eye for mood and the inter-departmental skills to pull a great blockbuster together. Let’s just hope someone else writes the damn thing.
June 13, 2014
Brenton Thwaites, Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp