Stylish, smart and well-acted, The Signal has many merits.
Unfortunately, it has just as many flaws.
The film’s greatest strength? Director William Eubank, whose technical skill is impressive. With a two million dollar budget, Eubank creates a visually immersive, genre-bending picture, one where the camera work, costuming, set pieces and audio all collaborate to ease us through significant transitions.
To wit, when The Signal appears to be a relationship drama masquerading as a technology thriller, Eubank employs static cameras and copious close ups. Later, when it functions as found-footage style horror, Eubank’s images are grainy and shaky, as though they have been recorded by a cell phone. After it becomes a science fiction mystery, the camera frequently takes Nic’s (Brenton Thwaites) point of view, moving consistently so as to capture the young geniuses’ observations. Finally, during the action-adventure phase, Eubank’s visual style seems directly taken from Marvel Universe’s Directions for Filmmaking, if such a thing existed.
The director artfully weaves every other filmmaking element just as well, and is therefore the primary reason The Signal’s many genre shifts never jolt the viewer.
The cast is universally strong. Thwaites, in a nuanced peformance, proves himself a talent to watch (a good thing since he plays Jonah in the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of The Giver), and Olivia Cook (Haley) is sensational, layering her poorly developed and even less well-used character. Lynn Shaye’s (Mirabelle) cameo is show-stealingly creepy.
The Signal is also very good at showing not telling.
Unfortunately, co-writers William and Carlyle Eubank’s screenplay isn’t strong throughout. First, they find no reason for Haley to exist, other than to be a constant concern for Nic. Apparently, her role is to be pretty, passive and endangered.
Secondly, and more importantly, their resolution is unsatisfying. The Signal builds tension by promising Moon-style thematic pay off, but here the epiphany never comes. We don’t know what this movie is about, really, and we can only guess at answers to many of the questions it raises.
Finally, two of The Signal’s biggest reveals rely on simplistic tricks of spelling or arithmetic, both of which many viewers will have parsed out long before the characters.
All of which is to say if William Eubank were as good a script writer as he is a director, The Signal would be utterly fantastic. But he isn’t, not even close, at least not in this circumstance, and so it is merely average.