The Signal (2014) / Sci Fi-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements, violence and language
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Lin Shaye
Director: William Eubank
Screenplay: William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio

Review published June 15, 2014

A trio of MIT students go on the trail of the mysterious hacker(s) identified as "Nomad" who has taken down their servers from somewhere in the Nevada desert, and who seems to be toying with them with cryptic emails, capturing their images on hacked surveillance cameras and the like.  They head out to investigate the house of origin, only to black out, then wake up in a restricted government facility where they're quarantined and interrogated by men in hazmat suits, led by the stern Dr. Wallace Damon (Fishburne, Ride Along) who informs them that they may be different and possibly a hazard to the public after they have been abducted and experimented on by extraterrestrials -- or have they?

For a relatively low-budget film (estimated $2-4 million), the look is quite good.  The cinematography by David Lanzenberg (Celeste  & Jesse  Forever) is top-shelf quality; there's really not much that could have made the photography pop more than it does on the screen.  Director William Eubank (Love), a veteran cinematographer himself, employs a variety of effective styles, depending on the locale.  "Found footage"-esque shaky-cam when the three students are entering the isolated house where Nomad resides gives that Blair Witch or Catfish feeling, while the sterile environs of the government compound get into some very still shots, a la Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The romantic elements, both in the present and in flashbacks of simpler times, are a bit hazy and intimately close like a Terrence Malick character piece, and then the action set pieces erupt in a Spielberg-ian fashion later in the film.  If nothing else, The Signal provides a terrific showcase for two very talented students of cinema who can emulate big budget Hollywood films at a fraction of the price.

The screenplay feels just as reference-heavy, particularly in a few nods to, among other things, The Wizard of Oz.  Good star turns are offered to a couple of thespians putting on some impressive American accents, with Aussie Thwaites (Maleficent, Oculus) proving that he has better acting chops than he's afforded in the eye-candy roles he has been mostly given thus far.  Laurence Fishburne, who consented to appear at a fraction of his normal salary due to his belief in the script, lends his formidable presence to anchor the film's shifting nature into treading the line between comfort and chaos.

Sci-fi aficionados, especially those who love genre-mixing, twisty efforts like "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits", will likely comprise the bulk of this alien abduction thriller's audience, who will find it very reminiscent of many other sci-fi films, including Michael Bay's The Island (among others that would constitute possible spoilers were I to list them all off.)  As it keeps its cards close to its chest, your enjoyment will likely be linked directly to how much the unraveling mystery intrigues you, as the screenplay, co-written by Eubank, isn't one to tell you anything you don't need to know, and even then it's all said and done, it leaves larger questions for you to answer yourself.  If you're attuned to The Signal's slow-moving but crafty  wavelength, you'll likely be entertained enough by the set-up to forgive the turbulent finale.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo