In a garish hotel room, Nicholas Eastman (Maleficent‘s Brenton Thwaites) receives a message from the individual who identifies himself as Nomad. Having already hacked into the systems of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where Nick, his girlfriend Hayley Peterson (The Quiet Ones‘ Olivia Cooke) and his best friend Jonah Breck (Super 8‘s Beau Knapp) are students and almost landing them the blame, Nick is determined to locate the true responsible party.
They track Nomad to Nevada, an easy detour on the road to their eventual destination in California where Hayley has transferred for a year, putting further strain on her relationship with Nick, suffering from the early stages of a degenerative illness and already losing mobility, but what they find is an abandoned shack in darkness. Leaving Hayley behind while they investigate, Nick and Jonah hear her scream and run back to the car, but she is already gone, and in a flash they too are taken.
Disoriented, Nick awakens in a medical facility where he is taken in a wheelchair to an interview with the hazmat suited Doctor Wallace Damon (Event Horizon‘s Laurence Fishburne) who questions him about when he first heard “the signal,” presumably meaning the communications from Nomad, while evading any questions Nick has about his whereabouts or whether Hayley and Jonah are safe. Pressing him for explanation, Doctor Damon reluctantly reveals that it is believed they have made contact with an EBE, an extraterrestrial biological entity.
Firmly in the school of filmmaking which feels that significant pauses and abstract images are a substitute for substance, The Signal hopes that in the silence of the characters the audience will fill the void of personality with their own thoughts. In practice, simply showing a road trip of disengaged rich kids happier to be digital bait than talk to each other with a hip soundtrack in place of character or emotion isn’t sufficient to engender empathy or interest, and the result is unsurprisingly pretentious.
Former commercial director William Eubank tries to evoke aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly the awakening of David Bowman beyond the stargate in the clinical environment Nick finds himself in, the formal compositions of the frame, the sounds barely heard from offscreen, the plastic cutlery in the shallow trays of processed food, but there is no grandeur here.
As the circumstances of his captivity become more bizarre, Nick determines to find Hayley and escape, a surprisingly easy challenge in the early stages considering the incompetence of the wardens in the minimum security facility where in a crisis, as in the equally ludicrous …28 Weeks Later, the lights are turned out to increase panic.
With lead roles in Oculus andThe Giver, Thwaites has carved out a cinematic niche which is decorative rather than demanding of attention, and his interactions with Cooke, manifestly devoid of personality, are artificial and lifeless. As pretty but ultimately as meaningless as the pop video it resembles (Eubank’s previous feature Love was a collaboration with composite rock supergroup Angels & Airwaves), The Signal is a sequence of events rather than a narrative which after ninety minutes finally arrives where it should have been after thirty, the real story about to begin just as it fades to merciful black.
The Signal is scheduled for release on Friday 27th March