“The Signal” is truly one of those movies that’s hard to describe, much less write a coherent review about. So many ideas are thrown into a sci-fi blender and not all of them stick. Director William Eubank does appear to have bitten off slightly more than he can chew with all the plots and themes that don’t quite tie together very smoothly, but, aided by strong leads in Brenton Thwaites and Olivia Cooke, there’s something so watchable and compelling about it, it’s hard to write off completely.
Thwaites and Cooke play a college-age couple, Nic and Haley, who are about to be separated as they drive across country to drop her off at CalTech – while he’ll have to return to MIT. Their best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) is along for the ride, and the two guys can’t resist when it appears their road trip route will put them in the direct path of Nomad, their hacker rival who hacked into MIT’s system and then framed them for the crime. It’s all pretty standard sci-fi fare up until this point, as one would totally expect that they’ll find something other than fellow hackers when they’re led, via IP, to a creepy abandoned house in the middle of the desert in Nevada, but the weirdness is only just beginning.
Employing hand-held shaky cam style cinematography to chronicle the trio’s exploration of the property in what will be their last grasp of normal life as they know it, apparently solely so the film can suddenly cut to black and then come back in a completely different place, the jarring, confusing antics begin snowballing from there. This is when the true story of the film begins, but unfortunately also feels like where Eubank begins to lose grasp of his narrative as it spirals out of his control. What had potential as a character study framed inside a sci-fi device – particularly as Nick, often seen running in flashbacks, is now walking with crutches, with no explanation – is quickly swallowed by mysteries that seem to lead nowhere.
Still, Thwaites makes for a compelling leading man (in a way that, say, Aaron Johnson failed to do in “Godzilla”) and the audience may stay rooted in the story because his Nic is along for the ride with them, and just as confused by what’s happening around him. Cooke’s ethereal presence too, makes Hayley’s mysterious qualities spiritual rather than flighty. The two are drastically changed by the experience they have gone through, but it’s still a bit disappointing that the film drops the issues it built up for them in the first, more normal half of the film.
As messy and somewhat unearned the second half of the film is, Eubank never fails to deliver beautiful cinematography and interesting things to look at on screen, whether they make sense or are given sufficient gravitas or not. This eye candy, along with his actors, are enough, for the most part, for “The Signal” to be worth a look and judgement for each individual moviegoer. And one thing stands true: You will not see that ending coming. For better or worse.