The Signal begins, excitingly and promisingly, by pulling together odd little movie subgenres. It’s sort of a road movie, as Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and his best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) ride along cross-country with Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), who is moving from MIT to the west coast; it’s also sort of a hacker thriller, because Nic and Jonah are on the trail of a mocking computer expert known only as Nomad, who has broken into their servers back at school. There’s also a dash of relationship drama, as Nic contemplates life without Haley, and slivers of memories cut into the present-day action; and horror, when the three track Nomad to an abandoned-looking hovel in the middle of nowhere.
What happens next, as the internets say, will surprise you — at first, that is, before the movie makes the transition from pleasurably disorienting to needlessly elliptical. At the creepy house, there’s some menacing static, some bright lights and screaming, and Nic wakes up… somewhere else, an unnerving combination of hospital and interrogation room. The production design of The Signal as it makes its turn into science fiction does a lot with (presumably) a little. The facility where Nic is held, and where he suspects his friends may be held too, looks sort of antiseptic but also off-white and used; everything appears on the verge of yellowing, and the technology (astronaut-like suits; CRT TV screens) is eerily outdated. It falls into the classic sci-fi movie tradition of re-arranging relatively benign, familiar items in a way that makes them look otherworldly.
At the facility, Nic can talk only to Damon, who is played by Laurence Fishburne, attempting to impart some Matrix-y credibility and using his expertise at intoning sentences that begin with “What I’m about to tell you…” What he’s about to tell you, though, is not a whole lot. Co-writer and director William Eubank isn’t after the same poetic, elliptical quality that Shane Carruth brings to indie sci-fi, but he has his characters cop similar poses: hardly anyone asks each other the right questions, and no one answers them regardless. Nic plots his escape but the whole thing feels rigged: first in fits of intriguing Twilight Zone-style paranoia, then in the tiresome style of filmmakers that fake depth by withholding information.
What stays withheld the most, though, is a sense of who Nic, Jonah, and Haley are, deep down. The movie sets up their relationships beautifully, then neglects them for what feels like ages. Plot-wise, the story eventually turns clear enough. But by that point, late in the film, the damage has been done; The Signal is too emotionally muddled for its extra-slow-motion revelations to hit with any impact. Haley in particular spends too much time in an elusive haze that Nic only seems to half-notice. That she barely has any lines in the last chunk of the movie begins to feel like a convenience and a contrivance, rather than the chilling PTSD Eubanks tries to suggest.
Eubanks may well go on to make a better film; this one shows a lot of promise but not enough modulation between its humanity and its fantasy. Images of those two sides mix beautifully, especially when Eubank cuts between the warm, dusky greens of Nic’s memories, orange-y desert hues, and off-white corridors. They also dissipate, until The Signal winds up with all of the resonance and feeling of a demo reel.