Whether it’s Boston Market mashed potatoes or the file folder section at The Container Store, there’s something endlessly satisfying about mediocrity done right. In this genre is The Signal, an apocalyptic sci-fi thriller set to a Garden State soundtrack, and a milquetoast movie best washed down with a warm glass of milk. The story of three tortured college-educated intellectuals who track down a hacker and end up prisoners in some glorified Apple Store, The Signal is neither painful nor inspiring. It’s a nice indie drama sandwiched between sci-fi white bread, risen to popularity by virtue of its inoffensiveness (here’s looking at you Chipotle, Miles Teller, my graduating class of 20#@). And while the visuals are gorgeous and the thrills actually real, I can’t quite say I care. More often than not, The Signal feels like an extended Iron & Wine rant, so subtle as to eclipse meaning, so cool it’s cold, so soft-spoken you can’t even hear it without your earbuds in (And definitely earbuds. This premiered at Sundance. It is NOT a Beats by Dre kind of story).
At the beginning of The Signal, Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Olivia Cooke) are three brilliant and incisive college students who somehow manage to look as middle-of-the-road as possible. Jonah and Nic are driving across the country to help Haley, Nic’s girlfriend, move into her new place. An atmosphere of anxiety and a soundtrack by some whiner permeate the road trip, as Nic decides what to do with his now long-distance relationship (A: dump her). I can tell the filmmakers wanted us to sympathize with Nic here, but I struggled because (1)He’s a hot dude. He’ll be fine and (2)He’s a hot dude. He’ll be fine. Still, does Nic face some real-life obstacles, among them an early-onset case of multiple sclerosis. To director William Eubank’s credit, the film neither idealizes nor infantilizes Nic, so common in movies featuring characters with disabilities (I am Sam, Born on the Fourth of July, And Eh: Probably All of Them). Ultimately, however, Nic is just an underdeveloped character passing as a super average dude, so while I can’t quite empathize, it seems kinda “d” to hate.
Things pick up exponentially when the crew decides to take a side-trip to locate NOMAD, a fellow hacker who’s been antagonizing them all along. We don’t know much about NOMAD, a mysterious Ghostwriter-figure, but we do feel some sense of formulaic anticipation as Nic drives up to the house. The film then rapid-fire shifts from indie drama to Blair Witch horror (there’s a lot of nauseating handheld camera sequences), before all three characters are knocked unconscious and wake up in a government prison/commercial sci-fi thriller. The transitions are executed successfully, so when Nic finally wakes up, we don’t feel like we’re in another movie, just a different part of the story (And thank God for the shift. There’s only so much of Wonder Bread twenty-somethings complaining about their imagined attachment disorders I can take).
But outside of some collegial whining, nothing in The Signal is bad or embarrassing at this point, and that’s part of the problem. Like so many films classified as independent, The Signal feels understated to the point of underdevelopment. And like so many movies in the sci-fi genre, these cookie-cutter characters are used like caryatids to buttress a pretty hefty plot. They’re simple props, cleverly disguised as people. And while it feels curmudgeonly to lament the loss of a “good story,” no amount of beautiful widescreen cinematography and well-positioned plot points can compensate for lack of feeling and creative voice.
All forms of technique – whether it’s scripting a plot twist or choreographing an action sequence – can be taught, but it takes a special kind of vision and emotional bravery to make a piece meaningful (actually, ix-nay on the emotional bravery part. This is storytelling, not Vietnam). I remember a classmate from college who wrote a perfectly executed and immaculately plotted short story about a Nazi cannibal who eats a baby from behind the curtain of a puppet show. Now while I give my ex-classmate some hard-earned psychopath points, his story only goes to show that technique – the physical construction of a piece – will always come second to the creative vision guiding it. I’m sure Eubank has some (his previous film, Love, received higher ratings), but The Signal is much better at blowing up a truck than it is at exploring a coming-of-age (maybe he should have added a Nazi cannibal?! God I still hate that guy).
Most of Nic’s time in prison is spent in an interrogation room with Laurence Fishburne (that’s a yay), a government agent dressed in an Alexander McQueen bubble suit. Fishburne encourages Nic to reconstruct the night they went into NOMAD’s house, but Nic refuses to give any answers until he’s released. It’s a Sisyphean effort on the protagonist’s part, and as the anxiety heightens, the film switches gears yet again and moves into David Lynch-style hysteria. Say whatever you want about Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive, but when filmmakers openly admit to “pulling from David Lynch,” I pop a benzo and hope for the best. Surrealism, when done well, can heighten whatever absurdities/emotional contours a standard-issue script may lack. But when done poorly, it can feel narcissistic and sloppy, a James Franco poem set to life. In the case of The Signal, Lynch-isms appear in the form of a mutilated bloody cow (ding-a-ling symbolism) and a Twin Peaks performance by a too-weird Lin Shaye (playing “The Cardigan Lady”). While the movie is mostly coherent up to this point, it finally explodes in an absurdist, inane, legit embarrassing, plot dump at the end.
None of this is to say that The Signal is a total failure, especially when we live in a landscape dominated by Seth McFarlane love triangles and right-wing Christian mompocalypses. It’s a visually stunning film with a totally identifiable plotline and some real log flume thrills. But it also feels mysteriously empty, character and motive either too understated or too inconsequential to drive the story forward. Haley, the only female protagonist in the film, spends most of her time either dying or whispering nonsense in muted and dulcet Cat Power undertones. Jonah is a relentless “Jonah,” and while Nic may dream of a better world, his vision includes hacker codes and a boring girlfriend. Thanks but no thanks. The Signal goes down like Applebee’s spinach-artichoke dip or Cheesecake Factory guacamole or Olive Garden Italian salad (How many chain restaurant analogies would you like? I grew up in New Jersey, I have thousands). It’s neither hateful nor hungry, neither offensive nor inventive, a movie best experienced with a 1,000 gallon container of coke. For a story that travelled to Sundance, The Signal feels like your standard side-of-the-highway fare. It’s just not worth the mozzarella sticks.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.