William Eubank's "The Signal" comes with a good pedigree. In 2011, Eubank's directed the low-budget sci-fi film "Love," a film that was as confounding as it was gorgeous. A cinematographer on many films, Eubank has quite the eye and he makes a lovely looking film with "The Signal."
Co-written with Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, the film is about two friends from MIT -- Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) -- who are driving across country to bring Nick's girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to her new home. Along the way the two guys are confronted with a mysterious computer hacker named "Nomad" who has been challenging them and causing problems. When they do some hacking of their own and find Nomad's location, they decide to make a pit stop to confront him/her. When they do, they find something completely unexpected and unnerving. Cut to the three waking up in a sterile environment where they realize they are being studied for possible contamination. But of what?
The less you know going in the better, so more details will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that Eubanks and his co-writers have crafted an oft-told tale but turned it on its head. You won't realize this until the end of the film, but that's half the fun.
While the film drags in spots, it's still a compelling mystery that keeps you guessing. Maybe it keeps you wondering for a bit too long, because that's where it tends to slow down. But the nice thing about Eubank's world is that he takes time to allow us into the characters' lives. For a good twenty minutes the film almost seems like a coming-of-age story about three best friends who are about to embark on different journeys. The music, cinematography, and natural performances of the cast all lend itself to making the audience care about these kids. So, when the bad things start to happen, it actually hurts.
Brenton Thwaites is an Australian actor who has been propelled to the forefront of U.S. audiences in the last few months. Having starred in a popular soap in his homeland, he has appeared in two films so far this Spring ("Oculus" and "Maleficent," where he plays Prince Phillip), and will next appear in the much anticipated adaptation of "The Giver" this August. Thwaites could be the next big thing. He has the good looks to be a matinee idol ready, but he also has the acting chops. While some of the material he's been given hasn't been the best, he is still able to bring a believability to his roles that many actors of his age don't. In "The Signal," he becomes a vulnerable type of hero, and he carries the film on his capable shoulders.
Just the same, Cooke (who looks like the offspring of Rose Byrne and Leighton Meester) is lovely as Nick's girlfriend and Lawrence Fishburne is a specialist that winds up doing tests on Nick and his friends is coolly clinical.
Additionally, the score by Nima Fakhrara is beautiful and exotic, and the cinematography by David Lanzenberg is breathtaking. Whether he is creating intimacy between the characters, showing us the gorgeous landscapes of Nevada, or presenting the wide colorless expanse of the place our three find themselves trapped in, the film is stunning to look at.
Some might scoff at how ludicrous the film becomes, but I would argue against this. This is a sci-fi film that takes an interestingly skewed perspective on a tale that has been presented to us before. While there is one "twist" that is fairly easy to spot for clever audience members, and the very end of the film recalls a classic film from the '90s, there's still much to appreciate. It's nice to see filmmakers take risks. It's also nice to see them take the time to make us care. In this day and age of big budget spectacles that use actors as just a catalyst to get to the next action scene, this is something that should be applauded.