The Signal is an idea. It’s actually quite an interesting — if not always terribly original — idea. It might even be a handful of interesting ideas. And for perhaps the first 45 minutes of its brief 95 minutes, those ideas are often enough to sustain it, to allow you to overlook, or perhaps to not even notice the fundamental flaws of the film. Yet by the film’s conclusion, meant to be a shocking, contemplative reveal, the viewer will inevitably realize that what you have just watched was a couple of good ideas encapsulated within a film that is simply not very good.
The film starts promisingly enough, with a trio of MIT students — the physically disabled Nick (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), and their friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) driving across country. They’re all the sort of generically attractive, vaguely hipster-ish folk that one would come to expect to find in your average indie drama, but the rapport that they share feels genuine enough for us to be invested in their journey, at least at the beginning. Jonah and Nick are computer gurus who have been engaged in an escalating war with an unknown hacker, and using technology that I am far too ignorant of to speak competently to its validity, they track his signal to an abandoned shack that is conveniently only a minor detour from their current path.
There’s a few moments of oddly misplaced, Blair Witch-style first person shaky cam as they explore the cabin, and then hell breaks loose, the screen goes blank, and Nick wakes up in a wheelchair in an underground laboratory, surrounded by wordless men and women in hazmat suits. The only one who will speak to him is Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who does so in cryptic hints about alien contact and infection, while asking questions that seem nonsensical yet often rather disturbing. Nick panics because he can’t get out of the wheelchair, because he can’t find his friends, and because he doesn’t know what the hell is going on. Yet there’s also a strange, almost willful ignorance on his part, and it’s there that the film begins to show its first signs of weakness — there’s certainly an air of desperation on his part, and also a genuine kind of ingenuity as he carefully plans his escape. Unfortunately, its accompanied by a kind of lackadaisical stupidity. It seems like Nick asks all the questions except the right ones. He finds out his girlfriend is in a coma, but doesn’t ask why or how. He can’t feel his legs, but never bothers to look under the blanket to see them. He bombards Damon with questions, but never the intelligent ones. If I’m to believe that he’s a genius MIT student, I’m going to need for him to start acting the part, even in a time of crisis.
Nick does eventually escape, and from there it becomes a strange kind of chase film, with Damon (who relentlessly channels his Morpheus persona by speaking in deep intonations and pregnant pauses) and his army of faceless soldiers stalking across a barren landscape while Nick and Haley encounter increasingly strange, drone-like people who can barely communicate clearly. And again, the same problems come up — they rarely ask where they are, or what’s wrong. It all sets them on a collision course with Damon and his troops, and a final, desperately-trying-to-be weird ending that, if you’ve read a handful of decent science fiction, you won’t have too much trouble figuring out. Sadly, you also won’t be nearly as impressed by it as the film makers want you to be.
There’s a lot going on in The Signal, with themes of friendship and love and science and experimentation, aliens and robotics and the very nature of power. And on the surface, those are the ingredients for a compelling film. Yet this one fails to ever really explore any of those themes deeply enough, instead using shallow echoes of them throughout its story. As such, there’s no real sense of stakes or urgency to the film, something that isn’t helped by its terrible pacing, which intersperses frenzies of clumsy suspense with knockout punches of dullness. It starts out with a crackling intensity is rich with intellectual, Twilight Zone-esque potential, but that potential is never even close to fully realized. The entire exercise is akin to diving into a lake only to find that it’s a puddle.
Ultimately, it feels like there were a couple of very intriguing ideas, but director William Eubank (who co-wrote with his brother Carlyle) doesn’t have enough material to fully flesh them out. William Eubank made his bones as a cinematographer of not very well known genre films, and it shows — the film is actually quite lovely in many respects, and the contrasts between the blasted deserts and the stark, sterile white laboratories is well-conceived. Similarly, the occasional flashbacks to Nick’s life before his disability are lush and gorgeously shot. But a gift for visuals and some clever effects (which are notable especially given the film’s paltry $4 million budget) do not make for a great movie. The Signal isn’t bad, so much as its disappointing. It’s a smattering of solid science fiction concepts with a handful of capable actors, some beautiful sets, all somehow tied together into a completely empty experience.