If you’ve ever read a Rod Serling short story, you know how interesting they are and what great screenplays they were adapted into for shows like the Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. They are clever pieces of writing that satisfy a small amount of time because it’s only a moment in a bigger world. When it’s over we imagine what else that world must be like and wonder about all those little details that were given us along the way. Adapting a short story into a feature-length film, however, requires the director to fill out more of that world for us and give us more story and developed characters in order to fill that time.
In the film The Signal, directed by William Eubank, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) is on a road trip to California to help move his fellow MIT schoolmate and girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to a new college. They are also accompanied by their awkwardly social and computer aficionado Jonah (Beau Knapp). Along the way they begin to have a back and forth online with someone named Nomad. The anonymous person hacks their equipment; so Nic and Jonah decide to take a detour to find this Nomad and teach him, or her, a lesson. After locating a rundown shack in the desert, they investigate the area and then the film takes a slow and surreal turn.
Our three main characters are placed in a facility of unknown origin. Explanations don’t come right away as Nic is confused and delirious when a man in a hazmat suit (Lawrence Fishburne) begins to interrogate him. They are possibly infected with some biological entity from outer space and must remain under their care for further research. These interrogations take up a huge chunk of our screen time and, as much as we enjoy Fishburne’s voice, it slows down the movie to a crawl rather than build suspense.
It’s difficult to feel any connection to Nic or his friends because we get little back story; and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to their situation. They want to escape, but they are possibly infected so what’s the endgame of them leaving. We see quick shots of other quarantined rooms, yet their conditions never warrant total confinement. There is plenty of time spent in this building; so you’d think they’d spend it talking and bringing out their characters more. Instead they always seem to be drugged or out of it; so the film moves along at a snail’s pace using needless flashbacks in-between the unconscious moments. All that silence and dialogue punctuated by long pauses leaves room for Mystery Science Theater humor.
The men in hazmat suits walking around are supposed to be creepy and ominous, but always come off aloof and non-threatening. You will find yourself questioning the logic of this whole setup, but all of it is, strangely enough, intentional. If you can hang in there.
I would have enjoyed this movie more if they had gotten to the point a lot sooner. The weird scenes at the diner and the science center, not to mention the unnecessary red briefcase, add to the eerie atmosphere they are trying to build, but it’s not enough to stretch out this premise. There is an interesting payoff closer to the end, but you have to be invested for it to work.
The Signal is a short story and should have been edited into a short film. It has the promise of a bigger idea, but it never comes to be. The unfortunate thing is there was another story they chose not to show us right before the credits started rolling. Perhaps they can explore that in a sequel.
I recommend this to you if you’ve had plenty of sleep, a lot of patience, and enjoy scenes inspired by Twin Peaks. Or just watch Twin Peaks.
THE SIGNAL:[usr 2.5]
About: THE SIGNAL
Synopsis: On a road trip, Nic and two friends are drawn to an isolated area by a computer genius. When everything suddenly goes dark, Nic regains consciousness – only to find himself in a waking nightmare.
Directors: William Eubank
Writers: Carlyle Eubank, William Eubank, David Frigerio
Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne, Beau Knapp
Runtime: 95 Minutes
Releases: June 13th, 2014