The Signal (2014) Film Review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by William Eubank, and starring Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne, Lin Shaye, Robert Longstreet, and Jeffrey Grover.
Perhaps because Focus Features was signed on nearly from the start, William Eubank’s sophomore film features an especially impressive array of special effects for such a low-budget movie. A popcorn blockbuster at heart, it takes the audience for quite a trippy ride, and it’s certainly enjoyable despite some silly, albeit minor, plot holes that may leave you scratching your head.
We are introduced to Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), MIT freshman who have some history with a hacker known as “Nomad.” With Nick’s girlfriend, Hailey (Olivia Cooke), in tow, they travel to the Nevada desert with hopes of tracking him down, claiming a sweet victory over the man who taunts them. They pinpoint his location and, when they arrive at an abandoned house in the pitch-black night, all three are in over their heads; someone – or something – gets the better of them. They soon come to consciousness in a secure lab where people in hazmat suits needle them with questions about where they think they are and administer seemingly meaningless quizzes about colors and shapes. What follows defies tidy genre conventions, instead creating a new concoction of horror, psychological thriller, science fiction and, surprisingly, some superhero elements.
Eubank shows remarkable mastery of suspense for a relatively new director. He gives the audience just enough to keep it satisfied while still leaving a fair amount of mystery remaining – an exceedingly difficult task. The film’s ending, though, does leave the audience with several unanswered questions; whether that is a sign of laziness or of promising grand ideas that may be fleshed out in a possible sequel remain to be answered. Fans of the TV show Lost will be especially drawn to the way the story unfolds.
The script is decent, though the above-mentioned minor plot holes do manage to take you out of the movie, even if just for a few minutes; a suspension of belief during what could be seen as the film’s more practical moments is sometimes required, though the science fiction elements of the story aid in that regard.
While the film does succeed on its own unique blend of recycled ideas, it also tends to feel familiar, and will seem especially so to those who have seen the film Chronicle, which was released not long ago in 2012. Still, you can’t help but admire the striking ingenuity and palpable new energy exhibited by all involved.
This film will serve as a great launching pad for Brandon Thwaites, who is poised to appear with Angelina Jolie in this year’s Maleficent as Prince Phillip. He utterly exemplifies the boy next door, confident on the outside but not quite sure of his own abilities until put to the test. His character arc requires some emotional heft, and he handily delivers. Olivia Cooke continues to excel in the role she has come to exemplify in all her projects: an emotionally-fragile young female with a boy on her mind. It would have been nice to see more of her. The third wheel, Beau Knapp, does a dutiful job in a pretty thankless role, though he has the privilege of wreaking some truly awesome havoc when it matters most. Laurence Fishburne, in the type of role he’s played many times before, seems to be having a great time as “The Man Who Knows All.”
In the end, this is a decent film that displays incredible potential. While the story doesn’t introduce new ideas or break new ground, it succeeds in delivering characters that the audience can care about and identify with. Here’s hoping for a sequel!
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