William Eubank announces himself as a director to watch, even as 'The Signal' falters under its own explanations
The Signal Focus Features
Director: William Eubank
Screenplay: William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne and Lin Shaye
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
The Signal is a movie that should resist understanding, and yet it keeps on trying to provide answers, its evocative quasi-surrealism undermined by an insistence on treating its premise like a puzzle that needs to be put together. The script plays out like a roadmap to conclusions and missing pieces that we don't necessarily need in the first place, and which actually serve to make the film seem more dull and less mysterious than I think it wants to be.
Without getting too specific, the answers we get call to mind various other science-fiction films of the past, which isn't a bad thing, except those details we get are dropped like bread crumbs on the path to ... well, to nowhere, really. If director and co-writer William Eubank thinks the revelations of the end are meaningful in any way, then it seems he's miscalculated his own movie. If that is what he was really leading up to ... well, the appropriate response is a big "So what?" (Quick note: There are a few details, or answers, that are intriguing, but they're most intriguing as hints about something larger and unspoken, rather than end-game answers in and of themselves.)
Yet it's impossible for me to dismiss The Signal because it's such an evocative piece of filmmaking; it shouldn't be ignored just because it feels the unfortunate need to offer concrete explanations. When it's not in plot-solving mode - or any kind of plot mode at all, for that matter - this baby purrs. The restrained, fragmented poetry of Eubank and David Lanzenberg's photography, coupled with Nima Fakhrara's sometimes-ethereal, sometimes-nervous, very Cliff Martinez-y score, establishes an abstract fluidity that feels rooted in memory - the formation of memories, the flexible reliability of them - and creates a tenuous sense of consciousness. Which is only right, considering our main character is entrapped in some sort of sterilized, nondescript laboratory and probed for memories and details that are foggy at best, absent at worst. Facts and truths are not, and should not be, easy to get at for Nic (Brenton Thwaites), or for us, and so the best of The Signal actually runs contrary to its more straightforward intentions and devices.
In regard to Eubank's filmmaking, bringing up Malick as a point of comparison would not be unfair, though I considered a more modern one in Derek Cianfrance, particularly the wide-open compositions and muted naturalism that reminded me of The Place Beyond the Pines. In terms of its own genre, The Signal would be at home in a family with Her, Moon, Solaris and the films of Shane Carruth. There are countless other lifts and callbacks to other SF films, but the more direct they get, the less interesting they are.
Eubank frequently presents characters from behind and at a distance, center-framed with an enormous amount of head space, shrouding them underneath treetops or elaborate cloud formations or the night sky. It gives the impression of watching - watching them jog through the woods, drive down a desert highway, sneak through an abandoned hallway. They are being watched, of course - by whom, they don't exactly know. Nic and his best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp), MIT students and occasional hackers, have been periodically toyed with by an unknown figure known only as Nomad. He hacked into their school's system and wreaked havoc, nearly getting Nic and Jonah kicked off campus.
And now he/it is back, texting Nic one morning in the middle of a road trip to California, where he's headed to drop off his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) at Cal Tech. "R U agitated?" the message reads. Nic and Jonah begin emailing back and forth with their adversary, eventually receiving a live video that shows the two of them - Nic and Jonah - from behind, staring at their computer screens, at that very moment. From that point, they resolve to find Nomad's location and expose him (it's unclear whether this is entirely genuine frustration at the invasion of privacy, or a fun kind of gamesmanship among hackers) on the way to California.
But when they get to the location, things go awry, and Nic awakens in a lab face to face with the calm, paternal Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who stares at him suspiciously, with a mild grin across his face. The lab itself is characterized by bright, antiseptic interiors - a common cliché of this type of sci-fi, but used to strong effect here. Like everyone else in the lab, Damon wears a Hazmat suit at all times, and offers tempered concern and cordiality despite the fact that he has, in effect, kidnapped these kids. Why the protective suit? Well, Damon claims Nic has been exposed to ... something. Not sure what. How serious is it? Well, considering one of his first question while interrogating Nic is, "Are you from Earth?" - yeah, pretty serious. He demands to see Haley, but she's comatose. He does connect with Jonah, but only speaks to him through the vents connecting their rooms. He learns the patterns and codes that govern the way the laboratory works. Damon offers no answers, but Nic finds plenty on his own.
The film would have done well to follow Damon's lead and remain cagey, as the suggestive and sensory experience is what gives the whole set-up its weight. Eubank is a terrifically talented director (his only previous feature credit, Love, is one I remember hearing about a few years ago but never got around to seeing), but oversells everything in his screenplay, on which he collaborated with Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio. Even as the spectacle gets stranger and more spectacular, the film beings to unravel, which becomes more and more of a problem once it becomes clear that the film's narrative apparatus (namely the second half) doesn't actually matter. The film's revelations make that all too clear.
And for a film that, at its best, is so thought-provoking and surreal, it's disappointing to see how many of its secrets are uninteresting or even, in a couple of cases, intelligence-insulting. One particular mini-twist is something that Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew would have figured out in five seconds, yet it stumps MIT genius Nic.
In any case, I was fascinated by it - though it's worth noting that a few sequences that speak for themselves, resisting overt explanation, are among the ones that stuck with me the most. More than anything else, perhaps, I'm intrigued by the possibilities of Eubank's future as a filmmaker. If his writing were as confident as his direction, The Signal may have been a real small-scale gem. As it is, it's still a piece of work worthy of attention.