Brenton Thwaites stars as Nic Eastman in Will Eubank's new thriller, The Signal. (Focus Features)
William Eubank’s The Signal is a genre mash-up, combining an indie road-trip story with hard sci-fi elements. From the get-go it sounds like an interesting premise, as I’ve never seen or really thought about what an indie-drama-sci-fi would look like. To my disappointment, it’s not a great image, at least not for this picture.
The film opens on three twenty-somethings, a couple and their friend, making their way to California in a station wagon. It’s never really clear why they are going to California, only that the girl, Hayley (“Bates Motel”‘s Olivia Cooke), needs to get there. There isn’t much dialogue either, giving us just enough info to justify the action of the film as it happens. We don’t really know who these people are, where specifically they are going or why. They are just doing things, and I am supposed to believe the things are important and dramatic – which is decidedly not dramatic.
Because there is so little information exchange between characters, it’s difficult to really care about them or what’s happening to them. The main tension of the first half of the movie deals with the breakup between Haley and Nic (Maleficent‘s Brenton Thwaites), a plotline that has enough going on in it and a slow enough pace to warrant its own movie. Opening with a breakup is a really difficult thing to do since we don’t know either of these characters yet. The only chance for it to work is if more is revealed about them as time progresses or if the character is so likeable I don’t care about anything besides watching them. Unfortunately, The Signal does neither of these things, and so the breakup and general opening to the film falls flat.
Like I mentioned before, the film has some issues with tone and, arguably, its own identity. The sluggish first act is followed by an even slower second act, changing setting from the open road to an underground government facility. At this point, the change is welcome after a first act sparse of detail, though the facility quickly grows tiresome, spending the better part of the second act within its walls. What’s supposed to feel like an abandoned, lightly run facility ends up feeling over-lit and extremely stagey. There must be at least six or seven people in hazmat suits working there, yet only Laurence Fishburne has lines. I get that Eubank was going for the solitude vibe, but it just doesn’t work in this case. Instead, it leaves me wondering whether those actors are capable of delivering lines. Ultimately, it was a problem of being there too long; not long enough to stand as a film of its own, but too long for it to be a working part of another story.
A lot of what ailed this film, besides the tone issues and lack of story/motivation, was the budget. Though I’ve been railing on the indie elements, the sci-fi elements worked well the few times they were showed. The scarcity of the sci-fi was no doubt a direct result of their paltry $2 million budget.
Now the indie elements are starting to make sense. Eubank opts to make his sci-fi vision 70-percent indie drama in order to cut costs and concentrate the rest of the budget into one balls-out sequence at the end that lasts not nearly long enough. It’s also placed at the very tail end of the film, making you wait until the very last second to reap the rewards of your patience. The effects were worth the wait for that last set-piece, but there just wasn’t enough of it.
When it isn’t being a high-concept sci-fi thriller, the camera work does its best to make up for the rest of its shortcomings. Though it’s shot beautifully, the film relies on the cinematography so much that the direction at times feels tacky. For instance, a moment when Fishburne’s character, Damon, pulls a gun out of a padded briefcase; it’s a cool image, and the briefcase adds suspense to the gun reveal, but for the most part it’s a silly image and hard to justify, especially since the only reason it was done was because it looked cool. Now, there isn’t anything wrong going down the hyper-stylized route, but you need to commit to it, otherwise it comes across as tacky. As it stands, the film takes itself too seriously as a romantic drama, creating a split between ultra-style and pensive storytelling – a divide that’s hard to take seriously.
I admire what he was trying to do in merging both genres, but in this case, its premise is strong enough that it doesn’t need the genre mash. The additional indie-ness doesn’t do anything to enhance the narrative, which makes me wonder why it was in there at all. Based on the story alone, The Signal could’ve easily existed as a straight sci-fi, which leads me to believe Eubank was more interested in alternative storytelling than telling a good one. I’m sure budget played a role, but considering all the tonal issues and lack of motivation, it’s clear that he should have paid more attention in writing the script than creating the film. I’m pretty sure the former is free.
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