Friday, December 18, 2015

THE SIGNAL (2015)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, December 18, 2015


When I saw the original teaser for William Eubank’s science fiction film THE SIGNAL (2014), it looked like a fast-paced, slightly artsy story, enough to file away on my mental to-be-watched list. However, on seeing an extended trailer (I’m not normally one to watch subsequent trailers for a movie I plan to see, to avoid spoilers, but this time I did), I decided, eh, maybe not. As you probably know from reading my past reviews, I enjoy the occasional bizarre science fiction flick, but the full trailer for THE SIGNAL made it seem too over the top and avant garde. It dropped way down on my list of movies to someday see.

Until the other day, when I decided to stream it late one night on HBO. My plan was to start it, then if it truly was as odd as the trailer made it seem, I would stop it and go to bed. An hour and a half later the credits were rolling and I turned in for the night much later than I had planned, but having enjoyed the movie quite a lot. THE SIGNAL is not weird. It’s mysterious and keeps you wondering what’s going to happen, but it plays out in a fairly straight-forward and clever manner. Co-writer and director Eubank also did my previously-reviewed science fiction film LOVE (2011), which was quite well done, itself, though with a hard-to-grasp meaning behind much of it. I’ve decided that he’s a talented filmmaker, especially after seeing his newest foray into the genre.

Though THE SIGNAL is not in any way a found footage film, it begins with that kind of feel. It is, in fact, a story with two distinct acts. In the first, three friends are driving cross-country to bring Haley (Olivia Cooke, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015) to California for a year away in college. Her boyfriend, Nic (Brenton Thwaites, THE GIVER, 2014, MALEFICENT, 2014), is bringing her along with their mutual best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp SUPER 8, 2011, THE GIFT, 2015). Nic’s an interesting protagonist because he apparently has Cerebral Palsy, or perhaps ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The condition’s never stated outright but he walks with the aid of crutches enhanced with arm braces. He and Haley are both despondent during the trip. She feels he’s letting her move across country for a year to set her free, of him, expecting his condition to worsen (this reason implies he may have ALS rather than CP). And she’s probably right, since he admits he doesn’t want to tie her down, she didn’t sign up for caring for him the rest of her life, etcetera. This sub-plot is primary in the first act of the film. The acting from these three relative newcomers is quite strong and they are able to carry the story with a natural ease.

Meanwhile, Nic and Jonah, quasi-genius MIT students, have been battling online with a hacker named NOMAD who has been relentlessly taunting them, breaking into their laptops and wreaking havoc for no other reason than to get them riled up. It’s a chess game between them. Jonah has tracked the hacker’s signal to somewhere deep in the Nevada desert. Since they’re driving across country to deliver Haley anyway, the three friends decide to win this battle of wits once and for all, and confront NOMAD.

So they track his signal and end up on a deserted, desert road in the middle of the night. To make things worse, it is an old, abandoned shack. This scene is where the found-footage feel of Act One becomes prominent, and is quite creepy, especially given the fact that our characters don’t seem too frightened by the situation at all. Something major happens to them there, which I’ll leave for the viewer to experience, and Act One comes to a close.

Act Two opens with Nic in a hospital room, recovering from what occurred in the desert (of which, he cannot recall). He quickly learns that he is not a patient in a normal medical facility. It is, in fact, a high security location controlled by the government. Or at least, government-slash-military-looking people, all of whom are dressed in full contamination gear. Whatever Nic (that’s how the credits spell his name; I’ve been finding the spelling a little annoying as I proof-read this review) is now suffering from after the incident in Act One, the people in charge are quite certain it’s contagious. The head of this facility, a man named Damon, is played with his usual quiet intensity by Laurence Fishburne (THE MATRIX, 1999, EVENT HORIZON, 1997). He offers Nic no information aside from what the young man manages to worm out of him over a few heated contests of will. Even then, one doesn’t quite trust the answers given. The main point Damon pushes home to him is this: he’s been exposed to an alien life form and he and his people are concerned about possible contagions.

Haley and Jonah are also in the facility, but none of the threesome is given access to the other two. When Nic discovers what it is about him that so concerns the staff at the facility, he panics and decides to rescue his friends, then break out. One criticism here I will offer is that it took the character far too long to discover what happened to him, considering the nature of his “affliction.” This point brought me out of the story for a moment, but I recovered quickly enough. The movie moved quickly at that point to distract me from this minor glitch in plot.

Act Two has a more-fixed camera look to it, and is loaded with action. Nic is highly intelligent, and tries to use this to find a way of escape. I won’t go into much detail about the rest of the movie because it has enough surprises to keep one entertained throughout. Like his earlier film, LOVE, writer/director Eubank uses the musical score to accentuate both action and isolation. It adds much to the film. The supporting cast also includes Lin Shaye (INSIDIOUS, 2010, INSIDIOUS 3, 2015), who, in her previous film credits, has always played someone on the brink of madness—she portrays the friendly medium in the INSIDIOUS films—gets to put on her full-steam crazy here as Mirabelle.

The connection between the hacker Nic and Jonah are pursuing in Act One, and the nature of the facility they find themselves trapped in in Act Two, is obvious early on and I wasn’t surprised at its reveal, but that doesn’t take away any of the enjoyment from this clever science fiction film. The ending, thankfully, is not one of those vague, you decide what this means, sort, but comes across clearly and, I think, cleverly. They probably spent a good deal of their effects budget on the final few scenes as well. Some of the oddities the characters experience throughout, are sometimes left open-ended. If I put a little more gray matter to it, I might have been able to answer most of these questions. But it’s fun leaving a few strings dangling, I think.

Overall, THE SIGNAL is a polished, original science fiction movie which will appeal to those who enjoy their fare a little left of center, and straight-line science fiction fans who prefer their stories spelled out, at least by the ending. I’m glad I finally got around to seeing this one.

© Copyright 2015 by Daniel G. Keohane