Yes. Yes I am agitated.
Every so often, an independent film comes along that validates all of the stereotypes about the genre. Something where the lack of money dries out any good that could have been there, like a parched animal gasping for air. The Signal is one of those films.
The story centers on Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) two MIT hackers in search of a mysterious cyber anarchist who shut down the entire system. Tagging along on the trip is Haley (Olivia Cooke), Nick’s girlfriend who is starting to tire of his emotional unavailability. As they arrive on what seems to be a compelling lead, they are suddenly attacked by a mysterious force, and Haley is sucked into the sky. When Nick wakes up, we find him trapped in a mysterious research facility full of white suited dullards lead by Damon (Laurence Fishburne) who claims that our heroes have returned from being abducted by aliens.
I love slow burn films. Intentionally stringing the audience along to lead into an epic pay off, or twist, it’s one of the strongest tools a director can use, especially in a smaller film like this. However, if that’s the route a film goes down, it becomes imperative that the pay off is in fact, epic. The Signal forgoes that fundamental entirely. Director William Eubank is so focused on making things look pretty, that he forgets to actually make anything happen in his silly little movie. This is a glacially paced, wooden, and agonizingly predictable trip down self indulgence lane.
At every turn, you can practically hear Eubank heavily breathing as he marvels at his own brilliance. He employs the intentional stoicism of Sci Fi films such as The Matrix (gee, maybe that’s why Fishburne is here) in both the visuals, and the characters inside the lab. Everything constantly hits you over the head with the fact that they are building towards a huge reveal. The dialogue is so cryptic, with mysterious questions that don’t seem to make sense, littered with constant moments of Nick agonizing over what it all could mean, and how he could escape. However, the reveal is so obvious that I can almost guarantee you that your first guess at what this all is correct. I suck at predicting things, and I had this thing mapped out almost instantly.
This stoicism leads to a great deal of stupidity on the part of some of the characters. The main ones get off fairly easy, but this film contains some of the stupidest grunts I’ve ever seen. Nick literally almost escapes this hell-house because a guy just refuses to look up from a piece of paper to see the person he is supposed to be guarding loudly dragging himself, and a medical bed across the hall. This type of stuff is pervasive throughout, and will have you loudly laughing in your empty theater.
Also, when the movie tries to have action, it utterly fails, stretching that two million dollar budget as far as it will go. Instead of having actual action sequences, the film fades to black, goes to a stillborn slow motion money shot, and back to black again. This completely extinguishes all the tension, and makes the cheep looking CGI stand out all the more. Seriously, if action sequences aren’t an option, just don’t bother.
This movie does have two major assets. The first, is the performances by all four of the leads. Thwaites, Cooke, and Knapp effectively convey their camaraderie, their fear, and their ultimate anguish while never going over the top as many young actors do. In fact, I was highly enjoying the movie before the conflict starts, and it’s just the three of them interacting. Fishburne gives us a pretty run-of-the-mill performance for him, but in this case, it’s intentional and fairly effective. Also, when there isn’t action going on, the cinematography by David Lanzenberg is absolutely gorgeous, and gives the movie a dark and foreboding look that does manage to escalate the tension in some sequences.
However, even with those great elements, the signal is a film that refuses to know it’s limits. As such, it comes off as completely half baked, and arrogant. Don’t get me wrong, if a film student friend of mine had made this, I would be bowing down to them. However, for something I’m paying to see, an amateur film like this simply doesn’t cut it, especially in a year where nearly everything has been firing on all cylinders.
You’re up ‘Rover’. Hopefully you’ll show em how it’s done.