'The Signal' explains too much for its own good

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICEJune 20, 2014 

THE SIGNAL

(l-r) Brenton Thwaites stars as Nic Eastman and Beau Knapp as Jonah Breck in Will Eubank's new thriller THE SIGNAL, a Focus Features release.

  • THE SIGNAL

    ** 1/2

    Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements, violence and language. Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne. Director: William Eubank. Running time: 97 minutes. Theater: Edwards 22.

Science fiction cinema doesn't get much more beautifully strange than "The Signal."

An alien-interaction thriller that borrows from generations of such films that preceded it, it has the visual tone, production design and especially sound design to rival the best recent films in the genre.

It features a compelling young cast and a wizened, inscrutable veteran as the chief antagonist.

And then the filmmakers trip over themselves with a too-conventional/too exposition-heavy "let us explain this to you" finale that kind of unravels the strangeness that preceded it.

"The Signal" begins as three college kids played by Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp are driving a battered Volvo cross-country. They're MIT students and they're being hounded by a hacker.

"Nomad" is "messing with us again," Nic (Thwaites) warns Jonah (Knapp). They taunt the hacker, and the hacker taunts back - turning on the camera of a nearby computer in the hotel room they've just checked into, posting traffic camera shots of their trek, messing with their heads.

Nic and Jonah trace Nomad to an address in the middle of the Nevada desert. "This doesn't look right," especially in the dark. And "Nic, you know this is stupid, right?" has no effect.

Next thing you know, screams, a supernatural event and Nic wakes up in what appears to be an underground research lab. Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne) quietly, calmly asks questions. And gives one answer:

"You've made contact."

Director William Eubank handles the script's "How can I get out of this place?" sequence with skill. Nic's methodical problem solving and reasoning, and his rising rage bring out his arrogance.

What makes "The Signal" work, up until it turns predictable, is the world that they place these characters in.

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