Review by Mark Schwab
William Eubank's second film (after Another Earth), which made a big splash at the 2014 Sundance film festival, is certainly a head scratcher for a lot of its running time. Although there are weaknesses, there are also some huge plusses and big risks taken as well.
We are introduced to three college age folk - all of whom are brilliant (and Hollywood good looking) computer geeks from M.I.T. They are making a cross-country journey and being menaced by a mysterious hacker named Nomad who seems to be stalking them online. Eventually, our three protagonists (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cook and Beau Knapp) track down Nomad's ISP address in the middle of a Nevada desert and decide to investigate. What they end up finding is way more than they baragained for when they black out and wake up in a sterilized lab with Laurence Fishburne (having a good time here messing with our heads) in a hazmat suit asking cryptic questions.
The Signal is very ambitious visually considering the budget is rumored to have been on the modest side. Eubank shows a lot of skill handling the special effects and is comfortable integrating them into the human interactions. He also creates an excellent tone of impending dread with some very tensely staged sequences that sometimes make your skin crawl (in a good way though) in that David Lynch sort of way. Not a whole lot is explained here and a few things don't add up upon reflection but there is plenty of stuff going on to hold your interest for the whole running time.
Where the movie falters a bit for me is the main lead performance of Brenton Thwaites. His looks hold the screen well but he comes off just a bit too "pretty boy" for this specific type of part and there were too many times where he chewed his lines in an overwrought way that was annoying. He also never really connects, chemistry-wise, with his two main co-stars.
Another point of contention is sure to be the ending. I think that Eubank felt all this visual work and heavy atmosphere he created leads up to it for a Big Bang of a finish. Alas, it was intriguing but it fell short of being a jaw-dropping, wide-eyed revelatory experience for me. I'm pretty sure there will be folks who see where it's heading well before the movie lets you in on it.
However, with its ambitious visuals, genuinely disturbing atmosphere, and bizarre sequneces, The Signal is certainly worth a look on the big screen. Just don't expect many answers and let yourself just get swept up in the whole thing.