If you’re a sci-fi fan who hasn’t yet caught all the greats, you’re in good shape with "The Signal". Otherwise, approach "The Signal" as a puzzle to see how many sci-fi greats you can tick off, lest its strong start and strong finish be undone by its muddled middle.
Here we meet MIT students Nic and Jonah, who are traveling cross-country to assist Nic’s girlfriend, Haley, with her relocation for a year’s study in California. Nic and Jonah have lately been menacingly provoked by a mysterious hacker going by the handle “Nomad.” Nomad has hacked the MIT servers as well as Nic’s and Jonah’s personally, and has escalated the game to menacing levels.
Having had enough of Nomad’s taunts, the two decide to confront him and employ their own mad skills to sniff out Nomad’s physical location, which as it turns out (doesn’t it always in the movies?), happens to be an easy side trip from their current route.
Thus they come to be exploring a remote shack in the desert. At night, of course. Sudden chaos ensues, all goes pitch black… and Nic wakes up wearing a hospital gown, squinting from the harsh overhead fluorescent lights, being gently but relentless questioned by a man decked out in full hazmat attire.
From here "The Signal" becomes a cat-and-mouse power struggle of information between Nic and this mysterious scientist. Clearly Nic’s being here is linked to the discovery of Nomad’s lair, but how? And what is this facility? Is it for the protection of all, like a quarantine, or is it a prison of some kind? Either way, Nic doesn’t like it, not one bit, and commences to seek answers, escape, or both.
Sporting beautiful direction by William Eubank, gorgeous cinematography by David Lanzenberg, and a creepy, atmospheric score by Nima Fakhrara, "The Signal" is a go-to date movie for sci-fi aficionados.
Provided you’re a teenager (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Because in that event, you simply haven’t had time to get around to all the sci-fi greats yet.
See, though beautiful and meticulously well-thought-out with regard to execution, "The Signal" falters when it comes to originality, which brings the entire project down.
As I’ve said on many other occasions, there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing something we’ve seen before, provided it’s arranged in some fresh fashion; after all, how many hundreds of times have we seen someone discovering an alien life form or facing a pandemic? I can rattle off five examples of each right in the moment, and could continue the example with terminal disease, serial killers, drug dealers, computer hackers, and the apocalypse.
So, sure, I’ll follow your weird signals to even weirder outcomes all day long, and happily - but you need to draw the audience along using your own voice, not the echoes of others’. Thus becomes "The Signal"’s Achilles heel: instead of emulating the greats, it pulls so literally from them that it’s one step from derivative.
Laurence Fishburne (his very self, even) delivering the bad news about what’s really going on and making our handsome dude really regret having been so hell-bent on meeting his mysterious computer genius ("The Matrix"); people in hazmat attire assessing the hapless who must remain contained underground by tight-lipped healthcare professionals who may or may not care about their health in particular ("The Andromeda Strain"); monochromatic hand-held-perspective nocturnal explorations of remote locations ("The Blair Witch Project"); and one to which I won’t even allude lest it ruin "The Signal" in its entirety (which proves my point exactly, and if you’ve seen the one in question, you’ll recognize it soon enough).
There’s nothing wrong with "The Signal", really, it’s just wincingly unoriginal. And what could make it original is left largely unexplored (the fact that, for example, our hero is coping with a degenerative disease). Was Nomad interested in Nic because of the crutches per se? If so, why require him to be a computer genius when any suggestible online inamorata with mobility issues would have done just as just as well? People catfish all the time, apparently it isn’t difficult. Etc., etc.; what could be truly interesting is reduced to mere contrivance.
All this said, I hold great appreciation for "The Signal" with regard to the promise of its cast and crew. Eubank and company make astonishingly prudent use of their limited budget, skillfully employing small or natural environments and channeling resources into striking special effects at important junctures. We see this also in the decision to attach one A-Lister with appeal to the target audience and round out the proceedings with strong yet lesser-known (and thus affordable) actors. I look forward to what Eubank will bring us once he applies that astute eye to story construction as well, and am happy to make an advance promise of a few more hours of my life’s time to his efforts.
"The Signal" may not feel original, but it does feel like smooth, solid sci-fi.
* PS to sensitive types - nothing horrific happens to the cow (at least onscreen, but beyond that, who can say, really...).
Story: Two young men seek to confront the mysterious hacker who’s been taunting them, and find themselves waking up in some kind of containment facility – but containing what?
Genre: Sci-fi, suspense/thriller
Directed by: William Eubank
Running time: 95 minutes
Houston release date: June 13, 2014
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened June 9th 2014 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX