"The Signal" follows the story of three college students, whose cross-country trip takes a detour toward the mysterious and disastrous. Unfortunately, wild shifts in tone and silly plot twists cause the sci-fi thriller to be as ill fated a movie, as the characters in it.
Nic (Brenton Thwaites from Maleficent), Haley (Olivia Cooke from Bates Motel) and Jonah (Beau Knapp from Super 8) are driving from Boston to California to drop off Haley at her new school. It’s a bittersweet road trip for Nic and Haley, who are dating and are going to be separated for a year at the conclusion of the trek. But after the tech savvy boys start getting messages from a mysterious hacker “Nomad,” the trio veers off-course to try to confront him.
This leads to an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, strange occurrences and finally, waking up in some kind of sterile facility, where all of the workers are dressed in HAZMAT gear. Soon Nic begins a series of analytical conversations with one of those HAZMAT clad workers named Damon, played by a star-power adding Laurence Fishburne. In these conversations Nic and the audience learn pieces of the circumstances that lead him there, which may involve an alien abduction and infection. Quickly, Nic’s thoughts turn from explanation to escape for himself, as well as his companions.
The main issues are tonal. The movie is all over the place. It starts off like a Nicholas Sparks-esque young adult melodrama and then switches abruptly (in probably the movie’s one great shocking moment) to a sci-fi-tinged mystery. This changeover is not the problem. This sort of bait-and-switch tactic is a mainstay of genre and an effective storytelling tool. The issue is with the many narrative shifts the movie takes after that. At various points, the film is a psychological drama, an escape film, an alien tale and even some kind of quasi super-hero origin story. Each shift in tone is handled capably by director William Eubank, insofar as staging and atmosphere, but without a consistent theme every change feels jarring. As more information is dispelled about the goings-on, the viewer is supposed to become more engaged in the mystery, but instead the opposite becomes true and the audience becomes more distant.
Eubank mentioned the influence of The Twilight Zone in the story of The Signal, saying “…I always wanted to do one of those – a story with intangibility and strangeness that makes you say, “What the heck is going on?” With its heavy reliance on plot twists, the influence of The Twilight Zone is easy to see. The difference is, in the Twilight Zone the twists were used to bring out some great character-based irony, but The Signal has it the other way around, where the characters are merely set-pieces used to service the twists. As the film moves closer to the end, the twists become increasingly absurd until they crescendo into a twist so goofy that it made me wonder if the whole movie wasn’t actually some kind of elaborate practical joke.
“What the heck is going on?” is certainly a question asked during "The Signal," but there are also a lot of questions one may ask themselves after the credits start rolling on the film. These questions typically start out, “But then why did they…” or “Then who were…” or “So why were they…” and somewhere in the murky narrative of the film, maybe there are answers to every question. But it doesn’t take much pondering before one thought becomes more pressing than any others; “Why bother?”
By Adrian Vina
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, violence and language
Running time: 95 Minutes