April 6, 2015 Leave a comment
After narrowly avoiding expulsion from MIT for a cyber-crime they didn’t commit, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) decide to confront the real culprit while driving Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) across-country to college. Known only as NOMAD, the hacker in question is tracked to a seemingly abandoned shack in the middle of the Nevada desert, where the trio are swiftly abducted after performing a perfunctory search of the property. Waking in an anonymous underground facility, his recently diagnosed muscular dystrophy having apparently run its course and left him unable to walk, Nic is quizzed by Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishbourne) on the mysterious signal that lead them to the State and landed them in quarantine. Nic, however, is more concerned with his paralysis, his friends’ conditions and the fact that none of the facility’s clocks seem to work.
Having made waves with Love in 2011 — a high-concept, low-budget science-fiction drama funded and scored by the band Angels & Airwaves — William Eubank returns to the genre with sophomore effort The Signal, which premiered at Sundance in 2014 before opening the Glasgow Youth Film Festival in February of this year. Costing eight-times as much to make, but still coming in at less than $5 million, it was no longer necessary for Eubank to construct makeshift sets in his own back garden, instead leaving the director free to focus on other aspects of filmmaking — this time facilitated by cinematographer David Lanzenberg, returning editor Brian Berdan and composer Nima Fakhrara. Remarkably assured, quietly ambitious and effortlessly arty, the production values at least impress enormously; The Signal is a triumph of both aesthetics and atmosphere.
The cast are great, too, with then-newcomer Brenton Thwaites showing a promise that has yet to be truly capitalised on by interim releases Maleficent and The Giver. Nic — part sci-fi cipher; part YA insurgent — is a complicated character, not least for his ongoing struggles with MD, or MS — it’s never made entirely clear. Like the film itself, he is at his most engaging during the opening half, haunted by dreams of healthier, happier days with Haley. His fears of dependency and alienation are realised in the research facility, where he is interred and isolated — wheeled from one locked room to the next as he recovers from a forgotten physical and psychological trauma. He is ably supported by Knapp, and even outshone by Cooke, who demands more screen time than she is ultimately given. Only Fishbourne, however, provides true star wattage, although he too is underserved by a role that only seems interested in his name and status. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of Insidious mainstay Lin Shaye, who cameos pointlessly as Mirabelle, or Cardigan Lady.
Unfortunately, as interesting as the original premise might be, the film falls apart once Nic and Haley leave the facility, all claustrophobia-born tension and institution-set intrigue escaping with the characters into the desert where they diffuse almost completely. The subsequent plot twists and revelations still have some power, but though the action might open out it’s hard not to get caught up in specifics of the facility. Why are none of the clocks working? What really happened to Jonah? What was going on with that cow, and the chair it apparently kicked at those observing it? While the references to The Blair Witch Project (Jonah sits facing the wall in order to scare Nic) and Catfish (the story revolves around deception online) at the film’s outset seem intuitive and intelligent, courting fans of the genre and encouraging them to engage, many of the later riffs either contradict or confound. Rather than establish a paradigm and work within established parameters to resolve it the narrative just continues to escalate until it becomes so untenable that it can only really hope to satisfy on the most nebulous of emotional levels.
What starts out promisingly as a surprisingly sensitive, intimate and dynamic portrait of a young man tested by unforeseen circumstances — be it his diagnosis with a degenerative disorder or his abduction by Dr. Damon — ultimately loses all sight of character and motivation. Rather than come full circle, The Signal spirals out of control.