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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 0%
Average: 16.67%
Pretty Bad66.67%
Total Crap: 16.67%

1 review, 6 user ratings

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Signal, The (2014)
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by Jay Seaver

"Some directors just aren't meant to write as well."
2 stars

Mystery is not enough. Don't misunderstand, it's terrific when a story gets one to lean closer, tantalized by what's going on, and creating that feeling is a matter of much more than leaving some details out while hinting that others connect in some way. Human beings tend to seen questions and answers as part of pairs, though, building all kinds of ways to get from one to the other, and that's a big part of where "The Signal" falls down, telling half a story very well but hoping as hard as it can that the audience isn't particularly interested in the rest.

It starts out with three MIT students driving cross-country; Haley (Olivia Cooke) will soon be starting grad school in Pasadena, which will make her relationship with Nic (Brenton Thwaites) even more difficult than the degenerative condition in his legs is already managing. Also along for the ride is Jonah (Beau Knapp), tracking a malicious hacker who got the guys into some trouble. The trail leads to a spot in the desert just a few hours out of their way, but when they get there... Well, things get weird, and the next thing Nic knows, he's waking up in the a windowless facility and a man in a hazmat suit (Laurence Fishburne) is asking him questions he can't answer.

Nested mysteries that aren't all answered at once aren't a bad thing, but co-writer and director William Eubank hits the restrictions of this formula pretty quickly, as Nic and Fishburne's Dr. Wallace Damon sit across from each other at a table, refusing to answer each other's questions out of what seems to be sheer stubbornness, rather than some reason that would make the standoff interesting rather than a stalling tactic. Things eventually start happening, and a lot of the time it gets fairly exciting in the moment, but it's frustrating when an explanation that fits is rendered moot by the need to have mysteries go another level deep, or for Eubank to supply more puzzle pieces and other distractions because the audience is about to figure out what they've got doesn't add up. And that's before just groaning at how revelations seem to come from figuring out word and number puzzles that only seem to exist to give information to prisoners who are supposed to remain in the dark (a firing offense in any massive conspiracy I run, although I'd write a nice letter of recommendation to GAMES Magazine) - or how a character comes out of a coma without explanation just as soon as it goes from convenient to inconvenient.

It would be unfair to point to all of the places that The Signal has issues without mentioning that some of what Eubank and company pull out of their hats is genuinely great, including a fantastic holy-crap moment midway through. And that's not even one of the two tone-shifts (one jarring, one smooth) that he gives the movie that breaks it into three decent units. The opening has the feel of a found-footage movie, just in terms of intimacy and small things building into genuine danger, without ever getting bound by that form's limitations. For all that the movie trends to spin it's wheels in the middle, it's hard to deny that Eubank and company find the right feel for the paranoia-inspiring secret facility. And the last leg of the movie has some impressive action as the filmmakers let a little bit of what they were holding back loose. If you look at it as an effort to distract from the story's issues, it's a good one and that's no insult; a lot of folks trying this would stumble onto something they can't pull off in terms of style.

But presentation is never really Eubank's problem. This is a good-looking movie; Eubank and cinematographer David Lanzenberg change things up as they go along so that a jittery nighttime sequence that is still pretty easy to follow can give way to some tight, rigid framing; that itself gets opened up later on. There's some really nifty design, too, whether it be making existing locations fit their needs or science-fictional elements that seem both out there and pragmatic.

There's also a decent cast, but they're fairly handcuffed by a script and direction that don't really have goals in mind aside from springing surprises. Brenton Thwaites, for instance, had even nuttier material to deal with in Oculus, but that character had a point of view and a personality that informed everything he did, while Nic seems all over the place even though there are hints of a character arc and a decent physical performance in the first act. Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp are decent as his companions, but they've got even less story than he does to work with. Laurence Fishburne is hired to be authoritative and intimidating, but his hands are tied by the need for Damon to be mysterious, and the payoff isn't that great.

Mystery is fun, and there's very little denying that it hits an audience harder and faster on a gut level than laying the solutions out in detail. It's worth it, though: None of the things that "The Signal" does well would be compromised by having revelations that mean something and stick, and just an ending that didn't feel so hollow and disconnected would do wonders toward moving things to the positive side of the ledger.

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originally posted: 06/07/14 12:33:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/17/17 morris campbell lame boring trash 1 stars
11/15/15 brian Excellent atmosphere but jerky pace and a couple of eye-rolling resolutions. Meh. 3 stars
3/10/15 Langano Had great potential but end result lacked purpose. 3 stars
10/19/14 Sean Kingston This was a horrible Film. Very slow moving and very confusin. Do NOT reccoment this movie 2 stars
8/04/14 jeanne The ONLY woman was either comatose or looking to the guys to decide their next move. 1 stars
7/24/14 Angelo Unlogical ending 2 stars
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  13-Jun-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 23-Sep-2014


  DVD: 23-Sep-2014

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