The Signal is a sci-fi adventure infused psychological thriller elements, and if Roman Polanski (The Tenant, Chinatown) directed a paranoid driven episode of The Twilight Zone, The Signal’s complex narrative would fit into his aesthetic wheelhouse. Science fiction, at its apex, delivers a journey into the mind and soul. During its most inspired moments, The Signal takes us there.
College kids Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Bates Motel star Olivia Cooke) are the best of friends. With Haley leaving the trio for a year, they understand their drive through the Southwest may be their last Americana trip for a spell. Nic, an avid runner before an injury left his physically disabled, needs his girlfriend more than ever, and Haley’s growing distance isn’t a good sign.
Jonah doesn’t want their travels to end, so he insists they hunt down a computer whiz who has hacked into MIT’s system but, in the process, has exposed a “signal” for the friends to investigate. Their mission ends in near tragedy, as Nic awakens into an unspecified location and at the mercy of the manipulative Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne).
To divulge further plot details may ruin your full enjoyment of The Signal. With a reported $2 million budget, Eubank has crafted a visually inspired and arresting look into Nic’s transformation from a wounded youth to a determined fighter. Carving his teeth as a cinematographer, Eubank knows how to craft beautiful compositions (he cites Ridley and Tony Scott as among his favorite filmmakers), but if The Signal only emitted pretty pictures, the meal wouldn’t satisfy more discerning moviegoers.
Instead, Eubank gives us prime cut steak with our potatoes, sometimes giving us more than we could possibly handle. Want a cat and mouse thriller? Damon and Nic are continually at loggerheads, and when one has the seeming advantage over the other, a new twist enters the mix. If bittersweet coming of age tales are your cup of tea, Nic’s frequent remembrance of things past, when life with Haley was sublime and his running days were ahead of him, are interspersed with Nic’s present day battle with Damon.
Thwaites, Cooke, and Knapp all deliver pinpoint performances as friends who need each other more than they could possibly know, and thanks to a remote signal in the desert, that chain may never be broken. Their shared affections are palpable, and each of them possess a distinct charisma that’s fit for the big screen. If producers ever developed a Rebel Without A Cause remake, filling the James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, their search should begin (and end) with The Signal’s leads.
Since we’re smack dab in the middle of top notch summer fare, The Signal’s cinematic power may not be fully realized until it hits Blu-ray or your respective streaming devices, and that would be a total shame. Even with its miniscule budget, the film is a feast for the eyes that is blessed with a slam bang ending. Just when you think you’ve got this mystery figured out, everything is turned on its head.
Eubank, a lifelong devotee of The Twilight Zone, understands that, as writer Don Delillo states in his book Libra, “there is a world inside the world.” For Nic to finally grow up and face his fears of abandonment and overcome his physical impairments, he needs to man up. No matter how fast he runs, the signal only gets stronger. Still, a smattering of hope lingers in the distance. All Nic and his friends can do is fight to live another day, whether it’s in this world or the next.
The Signal – With Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running Time: 97 Minutes. Focus Features