Normally, I like to review movies that people have actually heard of here in The Redbox Review, but when I have to pick between watching the fourth identical Melissa McCarthy flick this year (seriously, people paid to see Tammy?) and a promising independent sci-fi venture, I’m going to choose to isolate my audience every time. Sorry, folks. I hadn’t heard much about The Signal, initially confusing it with a 2007 horror flick, but I decided to give it a shot. My thoughts are mixed.
This is a film that lives and dies by its plot twists, so I’ll try and keep the plot synopsis to a bare minimum. MIT student Nic (Brenton Thwaites) is moving his girlfriend to her new college in California when his geeky, third-wheel friend convinces him to take a quick detour. Apparently, a hacker named Nomad broke into the MIT servers and the two were blamed for it, so they stop by his supposed address to teach him a lesson. The visit doesn’t go as planned, and soon, Nic wakes up in a nightmarish scenario.
Sounds cool, right? Well, it kind of is. First off, the largest props must go to director William Eubank. Eubank has much experience as a cinematographer, and the film hits all the right chords visually. Keeping in mind that the film had a budget of only $4 million, The Signal looks fantastic. It’s perhaps too reliant on wordless slow-motion shots over epic ambient music, but other than that, the film looks flawless.
Unfortunately, this visual prowess is accompanied by a baffling narrative that tries to be too many things at once. Eubank is given co-writing credit with two other writers, and indeed, it almost feels like three different films. A suspense thriller set-up gives way to a paranoid sci-fi fantasy which becomes a special effects-heavy action flick. I’m all for experimenting with different genres, but The Signal clumsily stumbles from one genre to the next, never really delivering a great conclusion with any of them.
This sense of “let’s do everything and see what sticks” is incredibly evident with the myriad of plot twists this thing has. Sometimes, it even feels like it was directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Some of the big reveals work pretty well, but others that were clearly written to be earth-shattering revelations are more shrug-worthy than anything. It’s supposed to be a mind-bender, but it comes off more as a head-scratcher.
Nothing ever quite comes together, but it’s never a complete failure either. At the very least, it’s fun. The set-up is effectively suspenseful and kind of reminded me of what would’ve happened if Catfish followed up on its marketing campaign and didn’t become a lecture on the Internet. Laurence Fishburne has a lot of fun as the straight-faced “villain” of the film, and his presence is much appreciated. There’s also some really great scenes here and there, such as the few starring the always-great Lin Shaye.
But while The Signal does manage to be consistently entertaining, it does feel like a missed opportunity. It’s weird as hell, and I generally love weird as hell, but it never really comes together here. Perhaps if Eubank would have focused less on making the film look beautiful and more on making the plot make sense, we would have a great work on our hands. Instead, it’s a stylish, odd film that thinks it’s smarter than it really is.
Zach Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.