Looking for answers
Brooding with a similar intensity to Chronicle, this low-key indie sci-fi thriller devotes a welcome amount of time to building the characters before it sends them on their dark mystery journey.Eliciting to avoid conventional storytelling techniques, to a certain degree, The Signal is a refreshing alternative to the modern Hollywood flick, eschewing the painful exposition that bigger budget fare generally peddle in favour of maintaining an air of mystery and tension as you find yourself on the same journey as the characters – looking for answers. The story follows three MIT students, Nic, Haley and Jonah, who are making a road trip to California to take Haley to her new college.On the journey, Nic and Haley argue over whether their relationship can work long-distance – bringing to the fore the problems they were already avoiding surrounding Nic’s increasingly debilitating muscular dystrophy. The addition of a trio of friends further complicate the situation by taking a detour to track down a mysterious hacker who has been haunting Nic and Jonah. What they find, though, is far more than any of them could ever imagine.
Writer/Director William Eubank made a striking debut with 2011’s Love, a visually exciting psychological sci-fi flick which works the same kind of low budget magic that Duncan Jones’s 2009 debut, Moon, did. Although Eubank’s sophomore effort still operates with a budget-restricted field, he’s got some pretty decent visual effects to work with, affording the film a chance at playing in a bigger league. Luckily, though, Eubank is as interested in his strong concept hard sci-fi and in his characterisations, as in the third act action set-pieces, which will no doubt surprise those who are confused by the first act road-trip. Indeed, it’s definitely a film split into three distinct acts, and the transitions between them may feel quite disorientating to many, although arguably to highlight this further would only spoil the surprise.
The Signal starts off small, before cranking up the tension and thrills, and then exploding into a striking finale.
Along the way the young fresh cast are surprisingly capable, with Home and Away’s Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Oculus) committing to a fairly believable performance as Nic, whose muscular dystrophy frustrates but doesn’t define him – indeed his Sherlock-like maths-driven brain is a far more defining feature. His chemistry with Bates Motel’s Olivia Cooke (looking a little more grown up, but no less gorgeous, here) is also palpable, allowing for some convincing tension between the two, and it’s impressive to see him hold his own when up against Morpheus himself, Lawrence Fishburne, whose best work recently has been in the excellent TV series, Hannibal, and who makes for a welcome supporting presence here.
Although ultimately not quite as effective as the dark indie teen superhero thriller Chronicle (which, if you haven’t seen, you really should), The Signal still plays in the same ballpark, and delivers up the same welcome, original goods, in spite of its budgetary restrictions and initially small-scale approach. Not everything may work, but Eubank knows how to maintain an air of tense mystery, whilst nodding at plenty of other films along the way (including a wonderfully meta Blair Witch moment) and keeping you invested in the characters as they go on their Twilight Zone-style journey. He’s certainly one to watch, and fans of decent indie sci-fi – from Primer to Moon; from Another Earth to Europa Report; from Monsters to Upstream Colour; from Safety Not Guaranteed to Her, from the yet-to-be-released here Automata, to this year’s gem, Ex Machina – should certainly consider this worth adding to the list.
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