Although evidently the work of a 20-something fascinated with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and sold as a feature length music video for alternative rock band Angels & Airwaves, with his 2011 debut feature Love, writer/director William Eubank demonstrated a talent for producing impressive visuals on a very low budget, and a desire to explore big ideas as best he can. He’s clearly a young filmmaker with aspirations.
The Signal continues in the same vein as Love, with a slightly higher budget ( around $2 million) Eubank again makes a film that looks a lot more expensive than it was, owes an unabashed debt to Kubrick (among others), and possesses a tendency to keep things cryptic, not necessarily to the film’s overall benefit.
It begins with a trio of MIT students, Nick, Jonah and Haley. The two guys are tech-heads, though Nick (Brenton Thwaites) is a former athlete who’s now disabled, causing some uninteresting tension with his girlfriend. Taking a road trip across the desert, they decide to try and confront a mysterious hacker called ‘Nomad’ who’s been taunting them online. What they plan to do exactly isn’t discussed, and their actions here do cast a little doubt on these supposedly smart characters’ intelligence.
The film then makes an abrupt but effective turn into found footage horror for a scene (they film themselves entering the darkened house) before having Nick awaken in a completely different environment; some sort of underground government hospital where the majority of the film takes place. He’s greeted by a calm but determined doctor (Laurence Fishburne) who informs him that he’s encountered an “extra-terrestrial biological entity” and needs to remain at the facility.
Eubank does a decent job in setting up the central mystery, through the brief camcorder sequence we know that something weird has happened, but aren’t sure what it is. Likewise that actual nature of the facility is deliberately unclear, and made more confounding by whatever snippets of information Nick is able to obtain. Unfortunately, Nick (again who’s introduced as a very intelligent guy) doesn’t ever seem interested in what’s actually going on or whether he’s infected with something, immediately becoming uncooperative and attempting to escape. The intrigue Eubank establishes with the environment is all compromised by his frustrating protagonist.
Genre fans will likely sense that something isn’t quite right beneath the surface of The Signal regardless, and the ultimate reveal proves unsurprising if well managed. The film continues to show promise for William Eubank as a visualist, even if it still contains some narrative irritations, but it’s low budget sci-fi filmmaking fuelled by ambition, which is something worthy of attention.