For a spell, The Signal thrives on the kind of mystery that has little to do with director William Eubank toying with our comprehension of his characters' fates. Though the film's setup initially evokes Wolf Creek, there's no lyrical sense of doom propelling two MIT geeks, Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), across a postcard-pretty stretch of American highway as they drive the former's girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), to school. Unlike Greg McLean, Eubank doesn't wring tension from desolate locales that perpetuate stories of otherworldly encounters and help to uproot suppressed romance, but he does capture haunted flashes of a couple's puppy love at a prickly crossroads. Way before Nick and Haley have to contend with far more mysterious forces than the hacker who's been teasing them with cryptic messages since before their road trip, there's only the sense that these love birds won't survive the insecurity Nick feels from having to use crutches, or the alien feeling of entering into a long-term relationship.
The Signal is at its most purposeful when it isn't trying to convince audiences that it has something up its sleeve. Nick promises Haley not to pursue the hacker, but after he hints at a breakup and she tosses a necklace he gave her into a canyon as enormous as her broken heart, his wounded male ego convinces him otherwise. The emotional deflation felt by these characters is articulated by Thwaites and Cooke with a richness and conviction that's unusual for this sort of genre exercise. And in spite of leaning too hard on dreamily scored flashbacks of Nick running through the woods, so as to hint at the sense of physical freedom the boy no longer feels, the filmmakers abstract the reason for Nick's injury in a way that both cannily shuns sentimentality and ratchets up the maddening sense of existential despair he feels when he wakes up inside a subterranean medical facility and is prodded and questioned by men in hazmat suits.
This is well-laid emotional groundwork whose initial complexity is revealed to have no outer rings, squandered as it is once The Signal becomes an exhaustingly slick pageant of fantastically detailed set pieces. Drawn to a creepy abandoned house in the desert by the Nomad hacker, Nick and Jonah essentially walk into a found-footage film before walking out, after Olivia's screaming draws them back outside and the dead of night gives way to unconsciousness, and then into what may be described as Vincenzo Natali's reimagining of a Stanley Kubrick space station. It's here that—spoilers herein—The Signal begins touting its bigger-scale ambitions. With Olivia lying comatose on a nearby hospital bed, and Jonah only able to communicate with him via a vent in his room, Nick begins to grapple with the perplexing nature of his confinement. The stone-faced Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne) reveals only that the trio of friends may have made contact with alien life forms, but Nick smells a con, and the scope of the young man's subsequent revolt brings to mind a gene splice of a half-dozen summer tent poles.
The titular signal refers to the Nomad hacker's taunts, though it may as well point to the film's nature as a self-styled calling card. In the interest of preserving the foreseeable and categorically flat punchline that Damon is in fact an alien, and that Nick, Haley, and Jonah have been brought to an Area 51 in the sky replete with condescendingly drawn yokels, the filmmakers fail to find pathos in Fishburne's baddie using technology like a poisoned carrot to prey on Nick's weaknesses. And rather than home in on the pain the boy feels at discovering that his legs have been replaced by mechanical ones, Eubank only delights at the sight of him running faster than the Road Runner. This is because Eubank, even in his calculated flashbacks to Nick running in the woods, is only interested in presenting The Signal as a demo reel, coherence be damned: to show that he can do The Spectacular Now just as easily as he can mimic the thrills from the Luc Besson, Paul W.S. Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, and Marvel universes, and convincingly on the cheap. As a programmatic great escape that becomes increasingly unhinged from human feeling, the film may not enlighten, but it does show that Eubank is ready and available for work.
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