There’s a new breed of independent filmmakers trying their hand in the science fiction genre, seemingly not daunted by the scope of the project, and creating intimate, thought-provoking, and ingenious endeavours in spite of the budget limitations. Mike Cahill, Colin Trevorrow, Shane Carruth and Gareth Edwards have all taken risks, and they’ve paid off. So for William Eubank – whose preceding feature Love was a mightily impressive, ambitious debut, the pressure is on to go one better, though despite the fact The Signal is undoubtedly a film bursting with ideas, regrettably, the execution struggles to quite match the creative intention.
When travelling back home across the States, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Haley (Olivia Cooke) are troubled by their own break-up, on the verge of calling it a day before their go their separate paths when summer is over. However that soon becomes the very last of their problems, when they – alongside best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) decide to track down and confront a hacker who has been messing with their heads. Finding out the location of the computer genius, it takes the trio to an abandoned, isolated house – only for them all to completely black out. When Nic wakes up, he’s being held in a quarantine zone, with the calming, authoritative presence of Damon (Laurence Fishburne) probing for answers. However Nic is after a few of his own.
Eubank cleverly combines supernatural themes against the normality of everyday life, never losing sight of the realism that grounds the picture. The romantic narrative and dynamic between Nic and Haley is well-judged, managing to find a strand of intimacy, to be naturalistic and ensure he’s got us on side before hitting us with all of the surrealistic, paranormal elements, thus making them somewhat easier to invest in. Eubank presents this tale with a stylistic fervour, poetic and abstract at times, evidently taking as many pointers from the likes of Terrence Malick as he does Ridley Scott. However, much like the former’s work, The Signal can feel a little self-indulgent at the best of times.
In a bid to help form an emotional attachment with our protagonist, Nic’s vulnerability is portrayed from the very beginning, as he’s presented with a disability that means he walks on crutches. We see him help out a kid in the opening scene, and then later on drop coffee as he struggles to conduct his usual, everyday activities without the ability to walk confidently. However it feels somewhat contrived and unsubtle in its conviction. As such it’s a struggle to embody Nic, which is needed when we’re thrown into the same situation as him, when he awakes unsure of his surroundings, we too are unaware, and disorientated. How did he get here? What exactly is here? These are questions we’re searching for the answers of, just as our protagonist is – as we try and unravel this mystery through his eyes, taken on this same journey with him.
What transpires is a relatively fun, ambiguous piece that just about holds down the audience’s attention as we wait, patiently, for the finale. The Signal is ambitious and bold and Eubank must be commended for that, and though it doesn’t all pay off, with flaws evident, it’s an exciting new voice in the genre nonetheless. Plus, as Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed led to him helming the forthcoming Jurassic Park production, while Edwards was entrusted with Godzilla following the brilliance of Monsters – there is no reason why Eubank cannot follow a similar path.