A lot of independent sci-fi filmmakers aim to make feature-length episodes of The Twilight Zone with their work. Director William Eubanks has said this upfront about The Signal. This is not a flawed aim. But the problem is that none of these writers or directors are Rod Serling. They make films that read from their synopses like they could have come from the man, but their execution is often quite lacking. The Signal is no different in this regard.
Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, and Beau Knapp play Nic, Haley, and Jonah, a trio of MIT students on a road trip to California. There is significant romantic friction between Nic and Haley, but all interpersonal concerns are tossed aside when the plot kicks in. When they take a detour to track down semi-legendary hacker “Nomad,” they get a billion times more than what they bargained for. Without dipping into spoilers, they have a catastrophic confrontation that ends in a collective blackout. Nic awakens in a sterile facility where all the staff refuses to remove hazmat suits. Scientist Damon (Laurence Fishburne) calmly interrogates him as to just what happened when they encountered Nomad. Twists begin to pile on as Nic seeks to escape and unravels what is going on.
The very basic cornerstone of good sci-fi, or at least the headier sci-fi that The Signal aims for, is that the fantastical elements serve some kind of deeper meaning. This film makes gestures towards such but actually has nothing on its hands. Nic starts out on crutches, still in recovery from some kind of vague accident, and finds his legs affected by his imprisonment in the facility. This does not mean anything. Flashing back to “big” moments in the characters’ pasts during important moments, as this film does, is not a substitute for giving the audience compelling reasons to care for them.
By now, Fishburne has mastered the art of enigmatic intonation, which this film allows him to do freely and copiously. I really can’t hold it against him. Thwaites gets nothing to do besides play some variation of screaming “WHAT IS GOING ON,” though he does as well as anyone can expect with it. I was at least impressed that the mannequin prince from Maleficent is in fact capable of acting. Cooke is given an embarrassing role, serving as a damsel in distress, near-literally a prop since she’s either catatonic or helplessly mute for most of the run-time. Knapp freaks out a lot and is absent for most of the movie, raising questions of why he is even there to begin with. Also Lin Shaye is in two scenes and is kind of great as a cartoonishly kooky local woman.
The movie has other highlights. It looks spectacular with Eubanks teaming with cinematographer David Lanzenberg to maximize a small budget. This is the height of what can be pulled off with digital cameras and limited resources. Editor Brian Berdan cuts the film like it’s a music video, which meshes well with the aesthetic and makes for some memorable bits of imagery. There are a few shots, beats, and even scenes in the film that made me sit up and take notice. If Eubanks and such a crew were paired with an interesting script, they could be a force to reckon with.
There are moments of levity in The Signal too, but it’s for the most part direly po-faced. This is a problem, given that it is also supremely dumb, and compounds that dumbness with each new twist in the story. The crowning example comes at the halfway mark, as (SPOILERS) Nic discovers that his legs have been replaced with robotic prostheses. He had robot legs for weeks but didn’t notice. That is next-level stupidity, the rare specimen of plot hole that actually threatens to break its entire film. The other twists aren’t as funny, and are more conventional, and mostly do nothing but exist for the sake of having a twist. The film ends on one as well, and it creates a giant shrug instead of any “oh SNAP” reaction. That is what The Signal amounts to: a shrug.
The Upside: Great to look at; fleeting moments of suspense, horror, and even wonder
The Downside: Extraordinarily silly and nonsensical
On the Side: William Eubanks’s previous film was Love, a feature-length science fiction vehicle for the music of alt-rock group Angels & Airwaves.