Monday, June 16, 2014
THE SIGNAL Is a Flawed But Admirably Ambitious Sci-Fi Mystery
THE SIGNAL Review:
- THE SIGNAL falls squarely into that fun category of movies where, sure, it's a bit flawed, but watching it, you can't help but think: "yeah ... this director is going places." With THE SIGNAL, the good and the bad is that the movie veers wildly across the map from a plot and tonal perspective. This means that the film is a very odd, sometimes random-seeming genre mash-up that doesn't do any one thing well enough to truly be great. It also means that what starts out as a creepy, Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi mystery goes to some very unexpected and very fun places. What seems to be a small little indie sci-fi story ultimately goes BIG, and, with limited budget, director William Eubank crafts big-hero action scenes on par with the latest from Marvel. Yep, THE SIGNAL has some real ambition that isn't apparent from the outset, and with it Eubank makes his mark as a guy who has the chops to out-do the big guns of sci-fi action at their own game. As messy a movie as this is at time, there are moments that gave me the same sort of thrill I got from other movies that unexpectedly ramped things up eleven - movies like District 9, for example. No, THE SIGNAL isn't in that movie's league, but it does have those moments where I got a giddy rush from seeing just how far the director was pushing things.
The film begins as a sort of road-trip mystery story about three young hacker friends in search of the source of a mystery signal that seems to have targeted them. Nic and Jonah - and Nic's girlfriend Haley - follow the trail of the mystery signal to a remote cabin. Then ... things get pretty weird. I don't want to spoil too much, since a lot of the movie's M.O. is to leave you in a constant state of guessing where this is all going, and wondering "umm ... WTF is happening?" Suffice it to say, the movie quickly and drastically shifts gears, as the three friends find themselves prisoners in some sort of strange medical facility, where they are tested on and subjected to seemingly nonsensical questions by an enigmatic warden (played with creepy stoicism by Laurence Fishburne). Then, things get even weirder, as we learn more about the tests being conducted on the three friends, and what those tests are turning them into. The movie doles out information only sparingly though, clearly going for that Twilight Zone-esque sense of mystery, and clearly leading to a classic Twilight Zone-esque final twist.
Mystery-box storytelling has been all the rage in TV for years now, since Lost jump-started it as the de facto mechanism for any and all high-concept series. But at the movies, this sort of deliberately-paced sci-fi storytelling is still a rare breed ... though it's been making a comeback in recent years. Moon was probably the best mystery/sci-fi film of the last several years, though other indies like Primer, Coherence, and The Signal have added to the growing list of interesting sci-fi gems. For me, someone raised on The Twilight Zone, I love these sorts of stories, and even when they don't 100% work, I still like any film that can leave me feeling pleasantly disoriented and eagerly awaiting the next big reveal. THE SIGNAL's greatest strength is that it does a nice job of creating that intriguingly disorienting vibe and leaving you chomping at the bit for more clues as to just what-in-the-name-of-Ray Bradbury is goin' down.
But where the movie falters is that, like many of these kinds of stories, it doesn't all pay off in a way that's 100% satisfying. I'm not criticizing the movie's ending in particular, more so the fact that the ending doesn't have a good-enough build-up to make the final twist feel earned. Point being, the ending of this film could have been almost anything, and each ending would have felt just about equally valid. The film is so hung up on keeping you guessing that it doesn't properly lay the groundwork for each new revelation. And so, it feels a little too much like Eubank is throwing darts at a dartboard rather than crafting a well thought-out story that completely holds up in retrospect.
The leads here do a solid job. Brenton Thwaites is a capable lead as Nic, and Olivia Cooke - who I've become a fan of from her work on Bates Motel - is really good at doing creeped-out and paranoid.
Beau Knapp is also a highlight as third-wheel Jonah, the geeky friend who has many of the movie's biggest holy-$%^& moments. And Fishburne, as mentioned, is pretty much the perfect actor to play the sort of all-knowing mystery man role he plays here. The actors are each saddled, unfortunately, with their share of groan-worthy lines - which I think is symptomatic of the movie's plot being sort of haphazard. Because there's such a need to keep things murky for so much of the film, there can be that weird disconnect where it feels like the characters aren't reacting naturally to what happens, and not asking the right questions.
While the plot does seem a bit thrown-together at times, THE SIGNAL really feels like a showcase piece for Eubank as a director. In the first third of the movie, he gives you teen horror and gives it to you really good. In the middle third of the film, he does mind-trip sci-fi and also sort of nails it - creating a paranoid, ominous vibe that sucks you in. And then, in the final third of the movie, Eubank goes big, delivering blockbuster-style sci-fi action on a surprisingly huge scale - smartly mixing big emotional beats with satisfyingly bone-crunching action that had me thinking "Marvel, call this guy up asap."
So no, THE SIGNAL may not go down as a new science fiction classic. But there is a lot of raw potential in the DNA of this movie, and it may just signal (see what I did there) the arrival of a new director to watch. You've got to admire its ambition.
My Grade: B