One common trait shared by the best thrillers across every medium is the establishment of an unnerving environment and ambiance that rests just below the surface of the action on screen. It's the feeling of uneasy strangeness evoked by places like Twin Peaks, Washington or Eerie, Indiana that appear normal when first introduced yet always feel just a little bit off.
The result is a creepy and dangerous fictional universe like the one forged in “The Signal” – a trippy little sci-fi thriller that's difficult to nudge out of one's mind.
“The Signal” kicks off in a manner akin to a teenage drama, with Nic (Brenton Thwaites) on a westward road trip alongside his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cook) and friend Jonah (Beau Knapp). The drive cross country is really meant as a goodbye between Thwaites, who walks around in crutches due to an unspecified disease, and Cook, who is moving to California for a one-year college program.
Their journey westward is plagued by the unseen presence of Nomad – a hacker bent on taunting Thwaites and Knapp through computer wizardry. The protagonists are pretty technologically savvy and are able to track down their tormentor to what they believe is his broken down Nevada home.
Thwaites, Cook and Knapp’s excursion proves to be a really bad idea, and Thwaites wakes up to find his girlfriend in a coma, his best friend missing and his legs completely inoperable. He's repeatedly interrogated by an odd government scientist (Laurence Fishburne) and ends up plotting ways of escaping his de facto prison. And the situation only becomes more peculiar and more surreal from there.
There's a lot to like about “The Signal,” starting with the aforementioned bizarre atmosphere director William Eubank creates through his use of a discomfiting soundtrack and pacing that is borderline glacial at the start but ramps up exponentially from there. Adding to that are the staccato line deliveries from the supporting actors filled with repetitions that don't stray too far from natural speech patterns but are, again, just a little bit off.
“The Signal” is filled with those little bits of juxtaposition, especially in its tone that morphs from CW-caliber drama to a hospital film akin to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” before settling into the sci-fi genre. Along with the change in tone is a shift in footage from handheld to a more traditional format. The transitions aren't seamless; rather, Eubank jumps into them in a manner to keep the audience in a perpetual state of disorientation echoing the one Thwaites lands in following the first act.
Even the actors at the film's center wander through “The Signal” in a dazed and confused state, completely lost in the offbeat machinations around them. That isn't to say the performances by Thwaites, Cook and Knapp are underwhelming and bland — they actually all succeed at portraying that state without coming across as wooden, which is trickier than it sounds.
These techniques are fairly common for thrillers, but what separates “The Signal” from a run-of-the-mill sci-fi flick is its willingness to trust the audience to follow along despite its dizzying complexity. The characters rarely comment on how off their environment is, and the film opts to reveal its back story through a series of dreamy flashbacks depicting Thwaites’ back in his physical prime, although his apex is defined by failure on his largest stage. It's evident Eubanks and fellow screenwriters Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio have watched “Marathon Man” a few times and picked up a couple of storytelling tips from legendary penman William Goldman.
So much about “The Signal” is well designed and thought out it makes the film's major flaw incredibly painful to witness. “The Signal” is a very smart film, but it loses itself when it aims for cleverness, especially with a major plot twist so telegraphed it would make Film 101 students gag. It's the one place where “The Signal's” filmmakers lose their faith in the viewer and accidentally undercut the effectiveness of what should be a rather remarkable and perplexing final shot.
It’s far more than a minor problem, but “The Signal” remains memorable for reasons unrelated to that stupid twist. It's a rather odd little piece of filmmaking, a bizarre oddity that's strangely enchanting and in possession of complexity, smarts and existential dread.
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