Review: ‘The Signal’ is a thrillingly rendered but familiar science-fiction story

When William Eubank made his first film “LOVE,” it was a personal obsession filmed in a set that he built on his family's property and left standing for years. It was funded by the band Angels & Airwaves, and their score was also their third album, a big double-album release. When I saw the film, I thought it was remarkable mainly as an example of just what is possible when someone sets their mind to it. The film didn't really work on a script level, but it suggested that Eubank is capable of great things visually, and that he could stretch a dollar well past the breaking point.

His new film “The Signal” made its premiere as a midnight entry at Sundance this year, and I've been chewing on it since seeing it. I have some issues with the film as a narrative, but I am fairly sure at this point that Eubank is a guy who is going to be making big studio event films in the very near future. He creates some remarkable images and moments in this movie, and his sensibility leans towards a sort of painterly love of quiet and sustained imagery. He juggles some pretty big shifts in tone here, and doesn't always pull it off, but it's really interesting to watch him try.

Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are good friends, college students who are working their way towards what will no doubt be big careers in tech after they graduate from MIT, and they start the film on a road trip to take Haley (Olivia Cooke), Nick's not-quite-girlfriend, to college. Something's happened to Nick that has left him on crutches, and there's some largely unspoken tension between him and Haley now, which is only exasperated when she learns that the guys are using the road trip as an excuse to track a mysterious hacker who has been teasing them with messages and clues, drawing them out to the middle of nowhere.

While I wouldn't call “The Signal” a straight-up horror film, it is as interested in scares as it is in wonder, and because of the way Eubank likes to handle narrative as a series of ellipses instead of spelling everything out, there's a disconcerting quality to the unfolding of the story. They find something dark and strange when they arrive in the desert, but instead of playing out like a midwest version of “Hostel,” the film makes some strange detours before becoming a sort of low-fi riff on “Akira.” The film works because Thwaites and Cooke are both so good at playing bruised. Even before they run into trouble, there's something really sad and broken between them, and the film builds to a climax that depends on the emotional connection between them if it's going to work, even as it lays on some seriously surreal imagery that is doubly-impressive when you realize the film was shot for $4 million total.

There are some really inventive visual effects in the film, but it's not a case of visual overload. It's not non-stop because it can't be, but Eubank slows things down in those moments, almost like he's afraid you'll miss it, and he draws them out so you feel them like you would if you were actually in that moment. There's that sense of something monumental happening, something that shifts your idea of what reality can be, and Thwaites does a nice job of showing us what a toll this takes on his character. Lawrence Fishburne shows up in a smaller role as Doctor Exposition, which is never an easy role to make interesting. Instead of typical plot beats, the film unfolds as a series of really oblique, surreal sequences, each one like a different fever dream. I wish the ending worked to deliver some sort of satisfying moment. I don't need answers to every question, but I'd love it if the film didn't offer an ending that is obviously trying to work as a big twist, but in only the vaguest of terms. It feels like it just can't quite land the punch that it throws, but it's not something that you can just easily shake off, either.

I do wish they'd called it something else. There is a much better title that they should have used, but (A) it would give the game away and (B) there's another studio that has been threatening to release a film by that title for the past three or four years, although it keeps getting delayed for some reason. But “The Signal” was already the title of a very good small-scale indie science-fiction horror film from the very recent past, and now this just feels confusing for no good reason. The script by Carlyle Eubank, William Eubank, and David Frigerio is simple and direct, and there are several strong elements in the film they could have hung a better title on if they'd tried.

As much as this is an audition reel for Eubank to jump straight into blockbusters, the same is true for cinematographer David Lanzenberg, editor Brian Berdan, and composer Nim Fakhara, all of whom contribute invaluably to the overall impact of the movie. This is slicker in execution than some giant studio movies I've seen this year, and there is a great deal of aesthetic control to the way things unfold. I feel like “The Signal” is a film that plays better when you're thinking back on it than it does in the room. It sort of melts into this dreamy whole that I enjoyed, and I am certainly onboard for the continuing development of Eubank as a storyteller.

“The Signal” is open in select cities today, and will roll out in more theaters in the weeks ahead.