The Signal irritated me. I saw the film over three months ago, and time has not been kind to my impression of it. If I recall correctly, I left the theater this past June feeling slightly more positive than indifferent about this particular hodgepodge of sights and sounds. How things change.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the last three months. I’ve come to understand that a background in cinematography is hardly indicative of directorial potential (I’m looking at you, Wally Pfister). A film is greater than the sum of its stock or digital cells. Yes, aesthetic is important – critical, even. But it isn’t a suitable proxy for storytelling.
When style trumps substance, something is either amiss, or someone is trying hard To Make A Point. Not every film needs a compelling narrative, of course. There just has to be enough to chew on thematically or emotionally. The Signal has neither.
The most egregious aspect of The Signal is how unfailingly adequate it is. Nothing about the film is especially atrocious, but it operates on a brute, maddeningly functional level. The plot would suit a Twilight Zone episode fairly well. It twists and unfolds on itself amusingly, but the film runs for 97 minutes, not 30, and doesn’t accomplish much more in the way of mind-bending than a single episode of that infamous show.
The Twilight Zone always found a balance between evoking immense confusion and emotional strife. Its characters would lose themselves in bizarre, often horrifyingly absurd situations. Yet Rod Serling’s relaxed narration never bid farewell to those ensnared in that strange realm’s depths without imparting a lesson on the audience. The closest semblance of a moral in The Signal possesses is “curiosity confused the cat.”
Brenton Thwaites (you may have seen him in The Giver) stars as Nic, an MIT student and apparent computer whiz who rounds up his best friend (Beau Knapp) and girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) to follow a mysterious hacker called Nomad. The kids find an abandoned house in the middle of Nevada and all hell breaks loose. When they come to, they’re trapped in a white-walled research facility monitored by dronish folks in HAZMAT suits.
Lawrence Fishburne leads the silent grunts as the ever-placid Damon. Nic tries to figure out what’s going on but Damon won’t tell him. If you notice anything suggestive about Damon’s name, please accept my sincerest congratulations. You don’t have to go see The Signal.
The film tries so valiantly to pass itself off as a constantly burning sci-fi mystery, but its secrets are so dry and obvious that they’re barely worth revealing. Even the hard left turn the film ultimately takes feels unearned. What was meant to register as a disturbing open conclusion to the overarching mystery instead feels like a ridiculous last attempt to obfuscate the script’s lack of inventiveness. The Signal isn’t obtuse to convey meaning. It fumbles in its own murkiness, burying a potentially compelling story under a pandering “mind-bender” marketing label.
That said, it’s hard not to stop and stare. William Eubank’s cinematographic eye comes through clearly. Working with director of photography David Lanzenberg, he creates a number of gorgeous compositions. Recurring shots of Nic running toward a rushing river, or even the final bizarre image, offer effective testimony to Eubank’s background.
It’s a shame The Signal isn’t both pretty and smart. Its strong visual presentation seems to necessitate a better film, and there were times where I felt that was what I was watching; style has the illusion of substance. Unfortunately for this film, that cinematic sleight of hand can barely mask the flaws of the story.
At certain chaotic points, the sound mix crackles with heavy distortion, interrupted presumably by the elusive NOMAD. The sonic rush flows over you like that oft-showcased river, and augments these immersive moments. When they fade, however, you’re only left with the reverberations of sensory stimulation. There is nothing cerebral about it.
The Signal is certainly an experience. I just don’t think it’s an important one.
Movie Verdict: Meh