A textbook “doomed teenager” movie setup that veers promisingly into “District 9” territory, director William Eubank‘s “The Signal” aims for something beyond the current cinematic landscape, but doesn’t quite reach the desired frequency.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, director Eubank cleverly assembles a scrappy sci-fi adventure out of familiar horror-movie parts. But a game performance by Brenton Thwaites (“Maleficent”) in the lead role eventually outpaces the provocative central mystery, stylishly driving the audience toward a resolution that lacks equivalent substance.
Thwaites plays Nic Eastman, a computer-whiz MIT student who’s driving his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel”) across the country, with his pal Jonah (Beau Knapp) along for the ride. In between awkward conversations about the future of his relationship with Haley, Nic discovers the whereabouts of Nomad, a mysterious hacker who nearly got him and Jonah expelled.
But after taking a detour to expose their online adversary, their search is interrupted by an unseen assailant whose attack lands them in the custody of Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), a doctor who seems to offer more questions than answers.
Despite Beau Knapp’s best efforts to deliver expository dialogue about Nic’s relationship with Haley in a conversational way, the opening of “The Signal” feels too much like what it is: a set-up for what’s to come. Even when Nic and Jonah venture into a dilapidated hovel to search (with a dodgy flashlight, of course) for the guy they’ve threatened online, these seemingly obvious creative choices are merely misdirection, a prelude before the script’s “real” ideas kick in.
Of course, the relative originality of those ideas may or may not be any more appealing to audiences than what preceded them, but at the very least those early moments of “oh, I know what kind of movie this is” from viewers are eventually proven false.
As a director, Eubank (whose previous feature was the low-budget “Love”) has a natural gift for composition and utilizes a clean, vivid color palette that amplifies the bumps and bruises that the characters endure as they fight for their freedom inside the nondescript, clinical walls of the facility where they’re being held.
Simultaneously, he uses his actors either imagistically or metatextually: the three leads embody their respective roles — hero, girlfriend, sidekick — almost deliberately as archetypes, while Fishburne trades on the gravitas of his past performances to offer a clear-eyed, authoritative counterpart who, perhaps not unlike Morpheus in “The Matrix,” challenges their naive ideas about the world around them.
Although the film’s ultimate payoff feels a little too big, and too insufficiently explained, to justify all of the obfuscation that led up to it, the script keeps the audience engaged and guessing right up to the end. Eubanks’ skill as a filmmaker seems commensurate with the impact of his story; his work here is higher-minded than mere low-budget viscera, but not as thoughtful, or thought through, as the material of budding auteurs like Neill Blomkamp or Rian Johnson.
Nonetheless inspiring, even as its reach ambitiously exceeds its grasp, “The Signal” is a calling card heralding the arrival of a promising new talent who offers a welcome rejoinder to small-scale formula; it’s consistently engaging genre fare, especially when it keeps you guessing which genre it’s exploring.