There is a desire at the heart of William Eubank's slick sci-fi picture "The Signal" to transcend the trappings of genre conventions and embrace the lyricism most often ascribed to mah-ture cinema. Eubank's background as a cinematographer doubtlessly contributes to the assured visual style on display, though David Lanzenberg ("Celeste and Jesse Forever") serves as DP here. Significantly less confident is the writing, offering up a thinly sketched protagonist and a collection of cast mates working with spare (some would say understated) material; the resulting film is lovingly crafted but insubstantial flash, though the mystery at heart sustains a first viewing. Ambitiously if awkwardly hopping from genre to genre, a relationship road movie fighting for elbow room with a sci-fi thriller and an unsuccessful but mercifully brief foray into found-footage territory, "The Signal" is the work of a resourceful craftsman—you'll see every penny of the reported $2 million budget onscreen and then some.
We open on a trio, two young men, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), and a woman, Hailey (Olivia Cooke), traveling through Nevada to drop the latter off at a college campus. Nic, who suffers from a neurological degenerative disease, sees this as an opportunity to end a passionate but embattled relationship, while Jonah is along for the ride and nurturing a growing obsession with Nomad, a skilled hacker parceling out clues to his location. When the breakup speech doesn't go down smoothly, Jonah appeals to Nic's bruised confidence and a detour leads to a seemingly abandoned house. After a shaky scuffle, Nic awakes clothed in a white hospital gown, disoriented and wheeled out to be questioned by Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who offers little in the way of cohesive information. As Nic grows desperate, he hatches an escape plan that will reunite him with Hailey and challenge the reality of his situation.
We hesitate to reveal more details, as a large part of your enjoyment will undoubtedly come from the film's impressively sustained sense of discomforting strangeness. We know as much as Nic does, and his search for answers does feel organic in that we arrive at similar realizations at the same time. That said, "The Signal" telegraphs its intentions a little strongly and perhaps muddles the specificity of the ending with too many inexplicable would-be clues. It all ties up neatly enough to satisfy before the logic faults erode the foundation. The cast helps to soothe the frustration though Thwaites, our lead, is unconvincing, in particular struggling to portray agitated intelligence—his motivations are never entirely clear and once he is granted the means to strike at perceived enemies, the emotional subtext is muted. Knapp brings an attractive nervousness to Jonah while the emotive Cooke is rendered immobile and largely unnecessary, much to our chagrin. Fishburne is fine, though hardly stretching the muscles in providing gravitas to yet another exposition delivery machine.
"The Signal" remains so committed to mining for pathos, so emphatic in contrasting Nic's past freedom of movement with a current encroaching immobility, that it almost succeeds in providing an emotional constant. Step back for even a moment though, and the characters fade from memory, their intentions unclear, personalities malleable. For a film that asks you to fully get on board with three confused, desperate and resourceful humans, it mistakes crosscutting for character development. We're no strangers to subtlety, the things unspoken yet clearly communicated, but "The Signal" lacks that depth and yet asks to be comprehended in a resonant way—it gives you very little but asks for a lot of trust in return. William Eubank and co. dream up several stirring images but without the foundation that would allow us to genuinely care, it's a hell of a calling card for gifted stylist, but little more. Still, there's no mistaking ambition. [C]