After watching The Signal, I was left with much the same feeling of frustration I had with Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, with the only real difference being that I didn’t hate the latter. What these movies had in common for me was a self-indulgent disregard for the audience. I’ve been watching movies long enough to understand and appreciate filmmakers that don’t spoonfeed the audience what their movies are about, and I think I have a good nose for self-indulgence in movies, which I define as movies that throw a lot of disparate elements into the screenwriting blender, except for a payoff that’s either meaningful or logical.
There’s almost nothing about The Signal that’s all that great, but at least the opening is watchable. Three twentysomethings – Nic, Haley, and Jonah (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, and Beau Knapp) – are driving west on a dual mission: to move Haley to California, and track down a mysterious hacker known as Nomad, whose earlier hacking almost got the three of them expelled while at MIT. Act 1 of the movie sets up the characters well, I thought. Nic and Haley’s relationship is strained because of her move to cA, Nic himself is suffering from a degenerative disease that forces him to use crutches, and Jonah is the nerd of the three. It’s a really good mix of characters, and all three actors are very believable in their roles. When they decide to find Nomad, having hacked their way into finding his location in a desert shack at nighttime, there’s an extended found-footage type scene that works well where Nic and Jonah explore the seemingly deserted shack, but unfortunately, this is where the good part of the movie ends. During this exploration of the house, it could have been the intent of director and co-writer William Eubank (the other writers are Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio) to pull a well-meaning bait and switch, because there’s a strong sense the movie heads into horror territory with that Act 1-ending scene. Following a brief return to the desert for the end of Act 1 proper, the movie shifts jarringly into science fiction. Now, this is not a problem for me – I like stories and plots that keep my mind engaged, and this shift initially does that, but my interest began to wane shortly after.
Act 2 introduces Laurence Fishburne, in a role that plays, oddly enough, like an extended cameo. Using the exact same measured tones as he did in The Matrix, Fishburne is mostly wasted here. Nothing about his character requires any kind of acting ability; the script simply needs him to talk. Slowly. And. Quietly, while revealing nothing of the plot whatsoever. By now the story has focused almost exclusively on Nic, and turned him into the audience surrogate, so all the irritation he expresses in his dealings with Fishburne is felt by us. It isn’t the mystery that gets to us, it’s that feeling that you’re talking to some red tape-bound middle-management flunky who only gives canned answers. This might work for a while, but for the best part of an hour, with absolutely no development? No way.
Also, there are a lot of scenes in Act 2 that feel written in a pseudo-cryptic manner, and never shake off the sense of phoniness. An old school cassette player is used to record conversations; a red briefcase carries a single, unremarkable pistol; characters on the run are picked up by a crazy old bat babbling fragments of sentences about angels and such. In a surrealist movie such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, you don’t question these seemingly out of place elements, because the milieu of the movie is established very early on. In The Signal, they seemed shoehorned into the narrative because the writers just wanted a weird, off-kilter vibe, and it completely doesn’t work. Other elements come off as plot conveniences. Nic discovers something about his body that logically would have been discovered far earlier in Act 2, but it’s held off for a key reveal. Likewise, when one character hasn’t appeared in the movie for a long time, he just kinds of shows up out of nowhere in a scene that is rendered almost pointless by the major reveal at the end of the movie.
And about that reveal – it actually puts a somewhat contradictory spin on everything that’s gone before. Other than the ending, which seems like a good-looking, but ludicrously obvious ripoff of a particular cult classic sci fi movie, I wondered what the whole point of the MIT hacking incident was all about, why the subterfuge of the whole of Act 2 was even necessary, what was actually happening in the second half of Act 2? What caused the big dents and scorchmarks on the wall in one scene? None of these questions came about because I was so blinded by the brilliance of the script – in fact, the opposite is true. It’s so clumsily resolved that I was left mostly annoyed that I had bothered to watch the whole thing through in the first place. By the time Laurence Fishburn’s acting consists of turning his head languidly from side to side, you feel it’s purely to show off some CGI effects. By the time Nic’s arc finishes in a mostly incomprehensible development, you feel it’s just another reason to show off some CGI.
In the end, the movie didn’t leave me with a feeling that it had failed to deliver on its potential, just that there was never much potential in the first place. The story that The Eubanks and Frigerio wanted to tell might very well be what is presented in the final cut – but it’s hard to believe that they wrote this script thinking they were creating some kind of twisty, smart sci-fi thriller when so many of the scenes do not play well at all with the basic narrative.