Brenton Thwaites plays an MIT freshman who awakens in a mysterious confinement center in "The Signal." Credit: Focus Features
'The Signal' Director: William Eubank Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
There’s more going on in the sci-fi mystery thriller “The Signal” than shocking surprises — just not a lot more. It’s a handsomely made indie (some would say a studio calling card for its director and co-writer, William Eubank) that is extremely patient, sometimes even sadistic, about parceling out information. The what of its little world is gradually revealed, in a manner that pulls you through, keeps you leaning forward, if only because of the inexplicable business on-screen. Whatever its limitations, it makes you want to know what’s next.
That’s about all you’ll probably want to know, despite considerable effort to be more than an exercise. Brenton Thwaites (recently Prince Phillip in “Maleficent”) plays Nick, a young MIT freshman on a Nevada road trip with fellow computer whiz Jonah (Beau Knapp) and his girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke). Because they’re young, Nick and Jonah go on a detour to find a hacker with whom they’ve had a beef. They track him or her to a remote cabin, there are some noises and an unidentified flying object (if not a UFO) and then Nick wakes up in an underground, blindingly light confinement fortress and lorded over by men in hazmat suits (including token star Laurence Fishburne).
Obviously to say more would be to ruin the fun, though in a sense it shouldn’t. One should respect those who don’t want spoilers, but if films or TV shows or books that don’t work after their surprises have been leaked don’t work anyway. Still, even as “The Signal” piles on some nutso hairpin turns, it slightly overestimates how unforeseeable some of its twists really are. Some are genuinely bonkers, but many are downright forehead-slappingly obvious, making their thunderous revelations overwrought, albeit in a weirdly touching fashion. It thinks it’s blowing your mind, and all you can do is nod in somewhat condescending appreciation at its zeal.
Laurence FIshburne grills Lin Shaye in an underground lair in "The Signal." Credit: Focus Features
“The Signal” does aim for rigor. Nick isn’t just trying to find what happened to him and his companions; he’s nursing physical and emotional fragility. He’s crippled, awaiting an operation, and what’s more, Haley surprises him with a not particularly well-timed break-up. He doesn’t just want to find out what happened to her; he needs to win her back by turning into an actual man of action.
Eubank is really showing off, combining a sleek sci-fi head-scratcher with a heartsick romance, all while drawing a line between itself and YA. Yet it feels calculated, or at least only theoretically deep, plus humor-impaired, apart from some forced jokes in the back third. In truth, and despite dedicated performances, these remain only moderately interesting youths navigating through a mystery you probably solved right away but whose solution you ignored because it seemed too easy.