By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
“The Signal” involves three college students, who are driving cross-country en route to California. Nic (Brendon Thwaites from “Maleficent’) the film’s central character, suffers from a degenerative neurological disease. He and his buddy, Jonah (Beau Knapp), are MIT students, who are hard-core computer geeks. Nic’s soon to be ex-girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), is transferring to Cal Tech. If you think that this is the prelude to standard issue road flick or a generic post-teen romance, guess again.
The film’s back story involves an enigmatic hacker, who has dubbed himself, Nomad. He has penetrated the M.I.T. network and destroyed several of its servers. Nomad repeatedly taunts Nic and Jonah online, challenging their posture as Nietschian übermenschen.
The lads think that they have divined Nomad’s whereabouts deep in some remote southwestern desert. They persuade a reluctant Haley to take a detour so that they can confront their cyberadversary. The trio follow various clues, before arriving at a dilapidated shack.
They are contemplating whether they have been sent on a wild goose chase by Nomad. Their speculation is interrupted by strange events. Haley is abruptly yanked into the air by some unseen force. All three of them seemingly lose consciousness.
When Nic awakes, he finds himself alone, separated from his comrades. He has a disconcerting loss of sensation in his legs. Nic is in some sort of subterranean research facility, surrounded by mute men in Hazmat suits. What is going on here?
Enter Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who seems to be in charge of the facility. He tries to quell Nic’s panic-ridden sense of anxiety and disorientation. According to Dr. Damon, the trio have made contact with an extraterrestrial biological entity. He insists that this off the grid facility has been enshrouded in secrecy for good reasons. However, his carefully-constructed rhetoric seems designed to conceal the truth.
The plot includes some interesting components, including an escape scene and the subsequent reunion of the three co-protagonists. Many of these vignettes are in equal parts surprising and confusing.
The acting by Brendon Thwaites and his two side-kicks is adequate, but in no way memorable. Old pro, Lawrence Fishburne, lends his customary gravitas and mellifluous voice to the proceedings. In small recurrent appearances, Lin Shaye offers inspired moments as a woman, who is either communicating with aliens or simply out of her gourd.
Working with a budget of only $2 million, director William Eubank gets maximum mileage out of minimal financing. Following up on his 2011 debut, “Love,” Eubank keeps this film moving and the viewer engaged. He demonstrates considerable promise, mounting some impressive vignettes. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Eubank and collaborators, Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, is plagued by a wobbly narrative trajectory and coherency issues. Nevertheless, it is evident that Eubank is a talented stylist. If he could find a better screenplay, a noteworthy film might emerge.
Cinematographer, David Lanzenberg (“Celeste and Jesse Forever”), captures the natural beauty of the New Mexican deserts as well as the surrealistic sterility of the quarantine site. The spooky production design of the bunker by Meghan Rogers adds to the film’s atmospheric quality.
“The Signal” remains a conundrum. It is yet another film that leaves the viewer scratching their head afterwards, wondering how to process what they have just seen. It seems impossible to unscramble many of the plot elements. Indeed, it remains unclear which of the film’s events transpire in the mundane world and which take place in some sort of virtual reality? Is there even such a thing as reality or do we humans conjure up this conceptual construct for our own purposes?
“The Signal” raises some esoteric questions. However, instead of providing any answers, it substitutes striking scenery and other visual flourishes.
** ½ PG-13 (for some thematic elements, violence and language) 96 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.