Three friends are on a mission: to find a hacker named Nomad who famously broke into MIT’s computers. Using GPS to find Nomad’s whereabouts they follow the signal to an isolated and abandoned farm house in the middle of nowhere. Things get weird when one of them, Haley (Olivia Cooke), disappears, lifted into space. Then, the others, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), meet the same fate following “The Signal.”
Cinematographer-turned-director/writer William Eubank, with co-scribes Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, comes up with an interesting futuristic sci-fi adventure flick that keeps one guessing and, in the process, maintains it tension level (and your curiosity) up to the 2/3 mark but the writers run out of steam . The story keeps things too cloaked in mystery for too long when Nic awakens in bed in a isolation facility with haz-mat suited Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne) standing over him. Damon heads the investigation on the alarming number of disappearances and Nic is one returned. Alien mischief ensues when Nic learns he has extraterrestrial bionic legs.
The plot unfolds as Nic finds that Hailey is also being held in isolation in the same facility and he plans to take her and escape to freedom. This is where things get skewed as the couple, joined by Jonah (who has ET bionic hands), go on the lam – but their captors seem unable to finds them, despite a fleet of government vehicles traversing the desert landscape in a pursuit that that drags on and on. The revealing ending feels like it has been done before, probably in one of the Star Trek movies. I give it a B-.
As they make their way towards California, Nic (Brenton Thwaites, "Oculus") is contemplating what the distance will mean to his relationship with Haley (Olivia Cooke, TV's 'Bates Motel'), who'll be going to school there. But he and his buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp, "Super 8") are distracted along the way by NOMAD, an MIT hacker who's noted their interest. When Jonah thinks he's located NOMAD's physical location, Nic agrees to a dogleg to follow "The Signal."
I've often thought that Shakespeare and Rod Serling have written everything and everyone else is merely riffing on them. Cowriter (with brother Carlyle and David Frigerio)/director William Eubank clearly geeked out making his latest film with its visual references to Kubrick, a "Blair Witch" in joke and special effects that belie his budget, but his story, while initially intriguing, marches right into the "Twilight Zone" territory most will figure out well before its characters do. This in itself may have been forgiven had the filmmakers tied their strands together. Instead they distract with supporting characters whose actions, and in some cases very presence, defy logic. "The Signal" is more worthwhile as a demonstration of what can be one with limited resources than it is as a movie.
Eubank jumps right into the computer hacking angle (with a score obviously leaning on "The Social Network's") without really explaining just why Nic and Jonah are so involved. In a motel room for the night, just when they think they're onto something they turn around to see their own laptop display reflecting themselves. This is a startling image but illustrates the film's entire reliance on visuals over good story telling. Thankfully Thwaites, Cooke and Knapp are good enough to establish characters we care about, so when they follow a lonely dirt road out into the middle of nowhere and find a rundown house awaiting them, there is a sense of real dread. Leaving Haley in the car, the boys go in to investigate, discovering a Jesus sign and dusty computer racks. Then they hear Haley scream. They get back outside just in time to witness something they can barely process.
When Nic, who's been on crutches for some debilitating condition, awakens, he's in a sterile hospital-like environment where a hazmat-suited Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne, TV's 'Hannibal') asks him to perform simple tests and refuses to answer questions about his friends' whereabouts other than to say they're doing everything humanly possible to ensure their well being. After spying Haley lodged in another room, apparently in a coma (and accessorizing Cooke with her 'Bates Motel' cannula - girl's gotta have a fashion statement), and conversing with Jonah through an air vent, Nic decides their only recourse is a breakout.
Eubank, who shot the film in widescreen, has a knack for peppering his film with disturbing ideas, like hazmat-suited men power washing a white room, or a pitiable cow being subjected to the command 'agitate.' If only he followed through on them. After drawing our attention to that Jesus sign in NOMAD's house, he returns to the idea through the character of Mirabelle (Lin Shaye, "Insidious"), a religious nut who picks up the escapees, only to fail to develop it. Once he's made his big reveal, the complex chase sequence which preceded it fails to make any sense whatsoever.
Eubank has proved he can work with actors and has the technical proficiency to make a film but the idea behind this "Signal" is weak.
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