Too cerebral for the SyFy Channel but too silly for any other venue, William Eubank’s stylish thriller offers sporadic chills amidst some very pretentious patches on its way to a pedestrian finish. “The Signal” provides proof of Eubank’s talent as a craftsman, but it’s weaker as evidence of his ability as a storyteller.
The plot is the sort of thing that Rod Serling might have used as the stuff of a “Twilight Zone” episode, though not one of the more memorable ones. Three MIT students—handsome stud Nic (Brenton Thwaites), who’s struggling with the onset of multiple sclerosis; his supportive girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke); and his hacker buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp)—are driving cross-country, where Haley’s going to spend a year at the California Institute of Technology. Nic’s torn between being bummed over the fact that he and Haley are going to be separated and fearing that his worsening condition is putting too great an emotional burden on her; his pain is evoked via periodic flashbacks to the past, when he still had use of his legs.
But he and Jonah have another purpose on the trip. They’re trying to pinpoint the location of a hacker named Nomad, who wormed his way into the MIT computer and got them blamed for the resultant fallout, and has been sending them taunting messages ever since. They finally identify the origin of his signal and take a detour to investigate. But it turns out to be a dilapidated shack in the middle of nowhere, and when they start going through it (in the middle of the night, of course), all three of them apparently black out. When Nic awakes, he finds himself a patient in a mysterious hospital paralyzed from the waist down, and confronted by a soft-spoken but determined interrogator named Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who badgers him with questions while encased in a Hazmat suit. Meanwhile Nic hear—or thinks he hears—Jonah calling to him through the vents in his room and, as he’s being moved about in a wheelchair, spies Haley comatose in another wing.
What’s going on?, you might well ask. Nic certainly does, but Damon is reluctant to offer any answers. The reason for what’s happening, it emerges, has a good deal to do with Nic’s malady, Damon’s identity (hint: remember “REDRUM” from “The Shining”) and the possibilities of cyborgian technology—something that Nic discovers when he escapes confinement, only to hitch a ride with a weird lady (Lin Shaye) and then link up with both disoriented Haley and determined Jonah in order to seek a way back to civilization. That’s a hard task, though, since Damon has a small army at the ready to track them down.
The answer to all the strangeness, when it comes, doesn’t amount to much. Along the way, however, Eubanks and his behind-the-camera cohorts—especially visual effects supervisor Colin Davies—manage some striking images on what must have been a modest budget. There’s a chase sequence involving a semi cab that could well have served in a much more expensive film, as well as a “road to nowhere” that suggests that wherever Nic is, it must be a place where the writ of the US Congress runs. Those are only a couple of the visuals that mark the director as having an exceptionally good eye, and cinematographer David Lanzenberg as adept at realizing Eubank’s vision.
The performances are mostly workmanlike, though Thwaites, as he did in “Oculus” (though far less so in “The Quiet Ones” or “Maleficent”) impresses as a young actor of considerable promise, while veteran Fishburne is as somnolent as he was during his single, unlamented season on “CSI.” Cooke and Knapp fall somewhere between the two extremes, but Shaye, perhaps best known as the medium from “Insidious,” seems to be having fun going all out for eccentricity. The other tech credits, like the visual effects and Lanzenberg’s cinematography, are all solid.
“The Signal” is an ambitious film, one that tries to appeal to viewers’ minds as well as their eyes. But its muddled plotline and studied ambiguity are likely to frustrate the audience even as the carefully composed scenes keep them watching in the hope of a more imaginative resolution than the one the movie provides.