THE SIGNAL (2014)
Director: William Eubank
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne, Lin Shaye, Robert Longstreet
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements, violence and language)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 6/13/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 12, 2014
The mystery at the heart of The Signal is deep. It is so deep that at the end, when we have come up on the other side of its pit, we have a different perspective on matters. Looking back from whence we have come, we realize that the mystery is a pretty shallow one, actually.
Part of that is inherently a matter of perspective, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that screenwriters Carlyle Eubank, director William Eubank, and David Frigerio put so much emphasis on the mystery. The answer, no matter how profound or mind-blowing (The ending here is neither of those things), is going to disappoint on some level.
Think of it in terms of a shaggy dog story. We don't listen to the teller—if we do—for the resolution; we listen to it for the details of the narrative. A good storyteller can take the most meaningless tale imaginable and hold us in his or her grasp. A bad storyteller can take a fascinating yarn and make it insufferable. It's fair to argue that a sign of an insecure teller of a shaggy dog story would be one who constantly has the characters in that story constantly asking where this thing is heading anyway. The audience might sympathize with the characters' befuddlement, but that doesn't change the fact that the same audience is sitting there asking the same thing: "Where is this damn thing heading anyway?"
The characters here ask a lot of questions, and most those queries basically amount to that one. The screenplay is forcing us to focus on the currently unknown and inevitably underwhelming solution to the puzzle instead of its pieces.
Those pieces aren't that interesting. The main characters are three college students on a road trip from Massachusetts to California. Nic (Brenton Thwaites), who has an unnamed illness that has limited his mobility to the point of needing crutches, and his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) are spending the trip very quietly dealing—as in, not even revealing the details until a good point in their trek—with the fact that she is transferring schools for a year. Their friend Jonah (Beau Knapp), along for the ride, doesn't want to get in the middle of whatever the two are dealing with at the moment, which doesn't help us in any way, either.
Amidst the mostly unspoken and essentially pointless—given what will follow before they arrive—conflict, Nic and Jonah are threatening to unmask a hacker who messed with their servers at MIT. They trace the hacker's IP address to a remote shack in the middle of the Nevada dessert, and despite what should be common-sense concerns for personal safety and investigative ability, they decide to check out the cabin in the middle of the night, leaving Haley, still stewing over the argument with Nic that finally came to a head, in the car.
Like all really bad ideas—and one can probably pick out at least three in this situation—in a movie such as this, it ends poorly for the trio, who wind up in a super-secret, underground government facility. Damon (Laurence Fishburne), the scientist in charge of studying them, tells Nic that they have encountered an "extraterrestrial biological entity," which is a fancy way of describing the shadowy creature with a big, oval head of gray and eyes of black that Jonah happened to capture on video while recording their trespassing.
After that lengthy introduction that keeps the characters and their back stories at bay, the change of scenery is welcome, especially as it serves to present one of those nightmares of the conspiratorial-minded variety. Nic plots an escape (and nearly succeeds on account of scientists without any peripheral vision), and learns that his body has undergone a drastic change involving alien technology (The sight of running shoes at the end of the implants is unintentionally amusing), which we get to see in action in spurts of slow-motion in the last 10 minutes. Eventually the scenery changes again to the dessert, where a few characters act strangely and Damon hunts his test subjects with a team of poorly trained guards and a pistol (housed in an absurdly oversized briefcase).
Each new setup starts to drag quickly, as we really have no foundation with Nic, whose past is vaguely elucidated through random flashbacks that feel like a second-unit afterthought (Nic running a race and spending time at a carnival with Haley), or either of his friends. It's all a mystery in The Signal, which means that it ends just as it starts to get interesting.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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