A conventional but visually stunning sci-fi thriller disguised as an indie drama.
The Signal is an ambitious sci-fi film about a group of computer hacking college freshmen who embark on a road trip. When they receive a clue about the whereabouts of a rival hacker, they are led to a mysterious house in the middle of the dessert. Here is where the sci-fi elements come out in full force, and after a twist, the hackers wake up in captivity at an isolated government facility. From there, they must try to escape and try (along with the audience) to figure out what is going on.
Despite truly stunning and unique visuals, the film's attempt to combine different tones ultimately feels uneven, especially at the end when it jumps from nuanced relationship drama to over-the-top, high-concept sci-fi. At moments when it needs it most, the script lacks a sense of humor, seemingly taking itself too seriously. This tone fits the smaller, existential drama that we're watching for the first half of the film, but doesn't mesh as well once the plot gets crazier.
The film stars Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) as Nic, the crippled college student who makes decisions rationally, but lacks empathy. Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel) plays Haley, Nic's girlfriend, struggling to make Nic see the value in making choices based on the heart. Part way through, we meet the stoic government agent subtly played by a hazmat suit-clad Laurence Fishbourne.
The movie starts our with a seemingly original plot, but moves into the realm of the more familiar over time. By the end the plot could be seen as an amalgam of a few other sci-fi movies (which to specify might spoil key plot points), however there are definitely a few wonderful twists added in.
Director William Eubank shows lots of promise, able to get great performances out of the young actors, while handling such a big talent as Fishbourne. He clearly has a knack for creating beautiful and disturbing images that pack a punch, and bringing out powerful yet nuanced performances from his actors.
Overall, The Signal has some breathtaking visuals, subtle performances, and it asks some thought-provoking, existential questions. It's best to go into the film knowing as little as possible, but while the plot starts out uniquely, it feels less bold and more conventional by the end. Still, despite its uneven, unnecessarily serious tone, the film is and inventive and intriguing piece of entertainment.
The Signal comes out June 13, 2014.