It's hard to pinpoint exactly when William Eubank’s "The Signal" goes from being an alluring and contained science fiction thriller into a full blown parade of slow-motion-driven visual effects. Its irreverent stylistic choices range from found footage to romance tropes and a heavy dose of high-tech alien robotics. The director's sophomore film, following his debut "Love," is defined by immeasurable ambition. While that previous effort reached for existentially profound ideas, here the narrative and its numerous components suffer from a gratuitous, empty feel.
The first half of the film plays like a road trip horror flick that a trio of young adults in the search of a notorious hacker known as Nomad, who infiltrated MIT's server. In order to assert their superiority and challenge this achievement, internet outlaw Nick (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Olivia Cooke) embark on a quest to the Southwest to uncover the identity of the assailant. Recently injured at a running event, Nick is the leader of the pack. Despite relying on crutches to walk, he conveys a sense of confidence about his coding skills. His best friend, Jonah, is the quintessential spunky nerd who comes in handy when times get rougher during the second half. Meanwhile, Haley, Nick’s quasi-girlfriend, voices opposition to the plan.
Once they reach their destination – an abandoned spooky shack — they decide to look inside. At this point, the possibility of supernatural involvement could go any number of directions: demons, ghosts, or even something less otherworldly like a technologically-savvy serial killer. But suddenly, as a shining light takes over and Nick wakes up in a hospital bed, it's evident something different has orchestrated the strange events. Disoriented and scared, Nick meets Damon (Laurence Fishburne), the apparent man in charge of the facility, who wears a biohazard-protective suit. He explains that the young man has been in contact with unknown creatures and must remain there for research.
During the initial sequences at this secure underground fortress, the story maintains a promising degree of intrigue, but with the addition of more and more twists, "The Signal" gradually loses focus. Unquestionably a feast for the eyes, the movie intermittently contains elements of "Chronicle," "The Blair Witch Project," "The Fourth Kind" and even "The Matrix." But the plot contains far too many loose ends to make these echoes count.
Australian actor Brenton Thwaites, whose career took off after he starred in several television shows in his native country, manages to remain surprisingly convincing as Nick, the smart college guy forced to deal with unexplainable occurrences. Unfortunately, the expressionless Fishburne is as inscrutable as the murky screenplay. But cinematographer David Lanzenberg deserves singling out for delivering crafting undeniably poetic imagery during the more intimate scenes.
But even as the tension in the enigmatic opening 30 minutes provides the movie with some redeeming qualities, it rapidly dissipates as the madness piles up with each passing minute. Needless to say, the second half contains plenty of surprises undeserving of spoilers here — but it should be known that most of the ensuing developments, though they manage a fair degree of visual astonishment, fail to clarify the convoluted trickery employed by the film. Eubank’s talent for creating impressive worlds with few resources is the movie's strongest aspect, but the concept feels like a never-ending exposition of technique without sufficient depth.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features releases "The Signal" in several cities this Friday.