Independent filmmakers who have helmed low-budget creative, science-fictions pictures of late, have been given the tools to make significant blockbusters. Gareth Edwards’ fine work in Monsters led to him being entrusted with Godzilla; while Safety Not Guaranteed‘s Colin Trevorrow is now in charge of the Jurassic Park reboot. With the potential to have a similar career trajectory, is William Eubank – whose previous feature Love was an innovative endeavour. However his follow-up production The Signal has not quite shown the signs of improvement that we’d expected, being a film that while certainly creative, hasn’t quite got the execution to match.
We meet Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), travelling home after a hazy summer break, only for the impending break-up between the former couple ruining the remainder of the tip. But little do they know that it will soon become the last of their problems, as they take a quick detour to confront a hacker who has been hassling them for weeks. Upon learning of the elusive stranger’s location, they’re troubled to discover a wasteland upon arrival, only to then black out and awake – in a quarantine zone. With the authoritative Damon (Laurence Fishburne) probing for answers, the frightened teenagers have a few of their own.
Where Eubank does succeed, is within the triumphant blending of realism and supernaturalism. The way we invest in the characters, connecting to them on a human level as they fall out of love, ensuring that when the more surrealistic elements take precedence over the narrative, we’re ready to abide wholeheartedly. This is enhanced by the normalising of Nic, our entry point into this world. He’s given a vulnerability, as he walks with crutches, endearing us to him and reminding us of his physical flaws: that’s he’s just a human being, epitomised in the scene when he spills coffee all over himself. However an abject performance from Thwaites makes it difficult to fully engage with the role, and thus becoming a struggle to go on this journey with him. We very much embody Nic, as he strives for answers just as we do, so without that emotional attachment, it makes for quite a disengaging piece.
The ambiguous nature of this film is what drives the narrative however, and keeps the audience onside as we fervently anticipate the finale, and the answers to our several questions. However that does lead to a pretty frustrating cinematic experience, and the finale is too underwhelming and anticlimactic to make amends for that. Nonetheless, there remains enough in Eubank to suggest a big career certainly beckons; as his poetic, abstract approach can be likened to Terence Malick. Yet The Signal is still not as accomplished a piece as Love was. Perhaps with more money, comes less charm.