Did you ever have the feeling you were watching three films in one? Then the odds were you were under the influence of some really good illegal substances, attending a really bad party, or just watching “The Signal.” I rented this film because the front cover looked like a still from a Stanley Kubrick film. In fact, the back cover promised a cross between Kubrick and David Lynch. That’s a tall order, a dangerous promise. Does “The Signal” live up to it? No. No it does not.
In the beginning, we’re introduced to a cadre of sexy teens seemingly on vacation (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp). But it seems they’re really chasing down a hacker who spoiled their school careers at MIT; there’s even some hacking footage, right down to computer screens with green digits being reflected in eyeglasses. Then we’re back on the road again with some muscular indie rock playing on the radio. And a little later we’re saturated with bloom lighting looking at landmarks. Some people might be starting to wonder if they’re watching a coming of age road trip movie by mistake or if something more unsettling than a blurry JEPG of a car is going to pop out of the screen eventually. I suppose it is sort of unsettling to have someone email you a recently taken picture of your car while you’re driving it, but there is nothing in the acting, cinematography or soundtrack that suggests the characters care, so why should we?
A little more than 20 minutes in, said sexy teens find their way to the hacker’s cabin in the middle of nowhere, and things go from bad to worse. We end up in a sterile facility operated by a mysterious government agent type in a puffy white hazmat suit (Laurence Fishburne). This is where the film finally takes off because, quite honestly, I don’t care if said sexy teens make it to California or fix their permanent records at school or whatever. In hindsight, I don’t really mind the sleepy first act because it only proves what miserable bores these characters are. The only interesting thing that’s ever happened to them is being abducted. So what I care about is how someone totally average reacts when he’s been kidnapped by a shadowy organization, much like the one Fishburne works for. There are some interesting paranoid set pieces here: Thwaites’s madcap chicken scratches on his bed, Thwaites talking to Knapp through a vent–or is he talking to himself?–the contrasting photography of Thwaites and Fishburne during the interviews, which creates a sense of distance and is probably the smartest set of shots in the film. And, of course, Fishburne experimenting on the cow.
I won’t go into the third act. Suffice to say that all the intrigue that evolved during the psychological horror part of the film is exchanged for what is superficially a superhero movie, complete with one character using robot arms to strike the ground, creating seismic waves that knock down enemy soldiers, in slow motion. Yes, there are enemy soldiers. And crazy townsfolk as well. Dorothy, how did we get here?
I ought to like “The Signal.” It features two actors from my favorite contemporary horror shows: Cooke of TV’s “Bates Motel,” whose alliance with the revamped Hammer studios is rapidly making her one of my favorite scream queens, and Fishburne of TV’s “Hannibal,” who has the unique distinction of playing both Jack Crawford and Cowboy Curtis. If the film is worth any kind of re-watching, it’s largely for Fishburne’s deadpan performance, and his interactions with Thwaites and the crazy townsfolk. As for Cooke, she’s in a coma for a lot of the movie, so there aren’t many opportunities for her to emote.
“The Signal” is not a bad film–it looks pretty enough, editor Brian Berdan is a pro and writer-director William Eubank’s heart is clearly in the right place–it’s just not very compelling. I suppose the big problem I have with it is there’s no particular statement it’s making. There is a reveal, but we all knew there was going to have to be one eventually, and it’s fine for what it is. The whole thing is probably a parable about the power of the human spirit or something. Which is, I suppose, a statement of sorts. Just one that’s sloppily executed with unlikable characters.
But why am I so caught up on the film making a statement, you ask? Why can’t it function as a psychological paranoia piece or a sci fi actioneer? Or even a teen road tripper? To which I respond: yes, why can’t it? Because “The Signal” cannot. It cannot make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be. If it can’t make up its mind, the least it can do is teach me something. Unfortunately, the only thing that “The Signal” taught me is that Laurence Fishburne is left-handed.