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The Signal

The Signal

dir: William Eubank

2014

A lot of films have too much money and not enough ideas.

A lot of films have too many ideas, and not enough money.

Some films have no ideas, and no money.

The Signal is some combination of these positions. Call it a super-position if you like.

I am amazed that this flick got made and was released upon an unsuspecting, unwilling and uninterested public. Amazed. It’s so almost accomplished and so horribly amateurish at the same time. Either one of those should have damned it to not-even-illegally-downloading-it hell.

That anyone thought this could be made and shown to people, to humans, and not have them fall into dissolving pools of frustration is a testament to the optimism of humanity. This is, as far as I can tell, William Eubank’s feature debut, and it’s as if he wants people to grunt “Meh, smells like M. Night Shyamalan-type crap to me”.

Let’s hope it’s not the first and only time he gets to make a movie. I’m sure he has a mortgage to pay off, hookers and strippers to help through college, the usual expenses that come with living in this modern world. It’s not an entirely loveable movie, but it’s not terrible. Parts of it are well made, he gets at least a couple of decent performances out of people, and even if it doesn’t entirely work, it works well enough as a calling card. It’s his second feature, but the first one with an even modest budget, so it should lead to him directing Transformers and Ninja Turtles movies in no time.

Three college-age kids are driving some van from presumably Massachusetts to California. One of them (Brenton Thwaites) has crutches, another of them (Beau Knapp) is painfully nerdy even for these nerds, and the third (Olivia Cooke) is a girl.

They are students from MIT who have some particular affinity with the world of hacking in general and a hacker specifically, called Nomad. Nomad has truly l33t skillz, and has gotten them into trouble previously, and seems to be taunting them now. He or she taunts them along their journey, sending them impossible pictures from roadside cameras as they drive across that great, burning, gun-totting land.

The guy with the crutches seems to be in a relationship with the girl, but she is moving to California for at least a year, so there is some awkwardness in the air. He thinks he’s doing her a favour by breaking up with her, because, really, what nerd girl would want to be in a relationship with some hot genius nerd boy on crutches?

Um, all of them? I’m not going to spend too much time teasing out the intricacies of that relationship, despite the fact that the film would like us to think that stuff is important. It isn’t, not really. What starts out small and modest becomes so high concept that I couldn’t really express how insignificant that the love of Nerd Boy for Nerd Girl is in the scheme of things.

When they track down Nomad to a derelict house in the Nevada hinterlands, the movie completely and utterly changes. Starts off as a road movie, descends into what looked horribly like it was going to be a found-footage type horror monstrosity, and then becomes a completely different mystery.

I wish I could say I was with this flick for much of its length. I can say I was partially with it. Anyone who, like me, has spent, or more accurately, wasted so much time and energy watching tv and movies for so long, especially genre type stuff, big mysteries like these aren’t really that mysterious at all. In fact, nothing surprised me in the least that happened in this flick. Movies very rarely surprise me, and this flick shouldn’t surprise even people who didn’t grow up on a steady diet of Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes.

If the ‘revelations’ here surprised any other viewers, or shocked them in any way, these are people I would like to tell about these bridges I own that would be perfect for them to buy. Also, there are these holiday houses on the moon I’m selling, and there’s no better time to get into the lunar market.

Twists should be irrelevant in enjoying a flick, because twists can sometimes damn an otherwise decent flick that was motoring along just fine. The Signal is the kind of flick that seems like it’s content to chug along with its mystery right up until nearly the end. The problem with this kind of delayed resolution thinking is that if there’s not enough to nurture our interest along the way, and it becomes about “so there better be a good explanation for all this crap eventually”, few flicks ever manage to make a twist good enough to justify the time spent.

The twist has to be brilliant, and not contradict some or a lot of what we’ve seen before. The Signal does not have a brilliant twist, in fact I would say it has a twist so obvious they should have shown it right at the start, just to get it out of the way, and then constructed a far more interesting flick around it. Instead, well, I live in the real world where films that look interesting generally end up disappointing me.

After the strange encounter at the abandoned house, Nic (Thwaites) wakes up in what looks like a hospital. He’s restrained and bossed around by these creeps in hazmat-style suits, and he can’t see his friends anywhere, least of all the pale, mumbling love of his life. One of the doctors in the place, (Sir Laurence Fishburne, he of the gloriously pockmarked face), Doctor Damon quizs Nic about various things, and gets him to do some tests. It appears Nic and his friends were exposed to some kind of dangerous organism, so the scientists are just protecting themselves, naturally. They’re worried that the kids could be contaminated with something, so they keep them pretty much bed-bound the whole time.

Fishburne is supremely creepy in this. I don’t mean like Catholic priest creepy, but in that, like all good men and women of science, he is supremely disinterested in these people who are little more than specimens to him. He doesn’t do much, but he doesn’t have to do that much to be effective.

Nic is very smart, though, and it’s pretty easy for him to figure out not what’s actually going on (because that would blow the movie’s load way too early, and then there’d be no point to the additional half hour of movie that insists on carrying on), but that things are very strange around him. The technology around the place seems to be fairly dated, as if Nic and his friends were kidnapped by the 1970s.

These scenes in the facility have a somewhat Kubrick aesthetic to them, but none of the thematic elements, or the glacial sense of pacing. Watching Nic trying to get out, and trying to save his friends is fun, seriously. It’s almost exciting.

What comes next is somewhat less so. It’s one thing to have an explanation to look forward to. The real problem, after the alleged shock one might feel watching the end moments, is that they would then think back to a bunch of stuff they sat through that now makes absolutely no sense, or at least doesn’t make enough sense to have justified putting those scenes in the film.

Also, a revelation like this one might convince you that there may be an interesting story to tell after that reveal, but then why not tell that more interesting story? This wasn’t made with a sequel in mind, nor will it get one, but how is that not an ending that nullifies any hopes you may have had for the characters involved?

It’s almost like Dorothy getting back to her Depression Dust Bowl-era Kansas farmstead just in time to watch her family get kicked out off the property. No, it’s more like she gets to stay in the Land of Oz but is forced to do everyone’s tax returns for all eternity.

No, it’s worse than that. Everything that happens after Nic escapes makes no sense, regardless of the ‘revelation’ making sense, nor does anything that their keeper/jailor Dr Damon does afterward make any sense either, considering the big reveal.

There are maybe some interesting ideas within all of this, but I have to say they weren’t all very well handled. It’s a mystery that’s engaging enough when it’s still mysterious, but then less so before and after. And it leads to a dead end, both intellectually and entertainment-wise.

It won’t be a dead end career-wise for Australian actor Brenton Thwaites, who seems to be in every movie I’ve seen lately. If anyone carried the flick, it would be him. Despite whatever missteps the script might take, he does a decent job of playing a hyper-intelligent rat in a maze, and he sells a lot of moments that must have been hard. He’s an engaging presence in an otherwise cold and deliberately obtuse construct, and he does well enough that this flick’s speedy fade back into oblivion shouldn’t impact on his long term employability.

Laurence Fishburne will probably still keep getting work as well, so all is right with the world. With our world, yes, not their world. Oh, no, not their world.

6 reasons why The Signal is pretty forgettable out of 10, to the point where I can’t even remember why it was called The Signal.

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“Are you agitated?” – well, you would be too if someone cut off your goddamn limbs – The Signal

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