The Signal (2014)
Dir: William Eubank
Written By: Carlyle Eubank, William Eubank, David Frigerio
Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Brenthon Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp
UK release: Frightfest 2014 (13 February 2015 nationwide)
After following a hacker to an isolated location, a trio of friends awaken to find themselves captured by a mysterious organisation, and their bids to escape are sadly futile.
Ending Frightfest on a sci-fi note was a risky decision, as the organisers themselves sheepishly admitted on closing night. On the one hand, the film in question could be the new Alien, in which case the fans would eat it up. On the other, it could be The Signal.
To be fair, there is a lot to like about the film, the latest from writer-director William Eubank, and his second voyage into the world of sci-fi. It’s just not really the best note on which to end Frighfest. Eubank, who has worked mainly as a cinematographer, has utilised his background knowledge to ensure The Signal looks absolutely stunning and the opening moments, in particular, capture the vast landscape of Middle America wonderfully. His story is also well-served by a minimalist score by Nima Fakhrara, while rising star Brenton Thwaites does a good job portraying the wounded, tortured protagonist.
At first, The Signal centres on a hacker and his efforts to thwart Thwaites’ character Nic, and his buddy’s, plans – unfortunately, this is also when the movie is at its most exciting. After leading them to an isolated location, the two, alongside token chick Haley (Bates Motel’s Olivia Cooke) find themselves in grave danger and are ultimately kidnapped. In these introductory moments the film really works quite well. In establishing an internet-centric premise, it feels fresh and topical, the threat real yet still unknown. Where it falls apart, and begins to sag into sleep-inducing levels of dullness, is when the sci-fi conspiracy thriller elements start to arise.
The always-wonderful Laurence Fishburne (currently kicking ass in NBC’s Hannibal) is the head of the supposedly helpful organisation, whose facility Nic and his mates find themselves desperately trying to escape upon waking up. It’s impossible for the man to be bad in anything, and he has some great lines here, but it almost feels as though he’s sleep-walking his way through the film at times, and who could blame him? It gets increasingly repetitive as Fishburne’s ominous bad guy sits opposite Thwaites’ supposed hero, shooting the shit for what feels like hours, their discussions leading to absolutely nothing.
There is a moment, about midway through, when Nic and his (male) friend realise certain body parts have been reassembled using robotics and our hero double-checks to ensure his penis is still intact. This is probably the lightest moment in the entire film, and it flits by so fast that it almost doesn’t register. There is a sense that certain comedic elements were left on the cutting room floor, and if kept in they may have saved The Signal from plodding along as it does. The robot limbs make the boys look a bit like Transformers, and when Cooke’s character takes centre-stage again it’s a slow trudge towards a nonsensical, ultimately predictable conclusion.
Thwaites is great in the lead, but Cooke is not Final Girl material (funny, considering she’s heading up the Halloween season’s genre offering, Ouija) and their supposed relationship rings very hollow as there is absolutely zero chemistry between them. In fact, if Nic were to confess his undying love for Fishburne’s character, it’d almost be more believable. His friendship with his best buddy (played by Beau Knapp, who starred in No One Lives, the polar opposite to this film) is under-baked and he’s dropped midway through like he never even existed.
The Signal is a frustrating movie. There is a good film buried underneath everything, but it ends as soon as Nic wakes up in the creepy institute. And, if you haven’t guessed the big twist the second he sits down opposite Fishburne, then this may be the first sci-fi flick you’ve ever endured in which case please, go and watch something a bit more exciting.
It looks gorgeous, the score is wonderful and Thwaites is charismatic in the lead role but ultimately, The Signal is little more than a derivative, repetitive take on a story we’ve seen a million times before, and better. Dull, plodding and uninspired, it’s style over substance in the worst possible way.