TMN Movie Review: "The Signal" Review

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A group of college students are lured to the middle of the desert by a hacker.
3.5

Rating: PG-13
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: June 13, 2014
Directed by: William Eubank
Genre: Sci-Fi / Thriller

Even with all of the focus on the acting, dialogue, story, music, editing and sound design that goes into putting together a feature film, movies have always been a visual art. As the audience spends the entire experience staring at the screen, the people most in charge of a film's visuals are the director and the cinematographer.

While directors get plenty of credit, cinematographers are often overlooked by all but the most serious film fans. Even though both actors and writers often want to or try to direct, cinematographers have a unique perspective on this medium. "The Signal" is cinematographer William Eubank's second attempt at directing a feature. With a unique story and a game cast, this sci-fi effort has much more going for it than just arresting visuals.

Sure, computer technology has taken over the world, including pop culture, but serious computer hacking is still the domain of devotees on the fringe of computer enthusiasts. Two such computer enthusiasts, Nic and Jonah, played by Brenton Thwaites and Beau Knapp, respectively, start out "The Signal" on a road trip from MIT with Nic's girlfriend, Haley. The three students are on the way to Haley's school. While all of them are more tech-aware than even the average modern 20-something, Haley has no interest in following up on the incitements, or signals, from a fellow hacker seemingly intent on getting the group's attention and interrupting their transcontinental journey.

Eubank has distinct visual technique to spare. As the road trip takes an obviously ill-advised detour into the desert, he does not resort to the usual use of arid vistas and forbidding nature to create a sense of doom. Instead, the director works within a more original framework to portray a queasily subjective visual anxiety. As the tension builds, the camerawork fluctuates between various styles. While this could come across as annoying at best and amateurish at worst, the degree of confidence in the direction, and the legitimate sense of unease created, is enough to do away with any doubts that the filmmakers know what they are doing.

As the plot unfolds, the central young couple's relationship begins disintegrating. While it is a common trope in horror and sci-fi to mix common emotional strife with alien phenomena, it is subtle and well-acted enough to ring true here. Nic's insistence on entering clearly dangerous territory is a symptom of stubbornness and insecurity. The fact that Nic is also struggling with MS inflates both his self-doubt and his foolhardiness.

The places where "The Signal" leads are novel and intriguing, even if they lack the easy intensity of mainstream thrillers. As the tension builds, the story and style of the movie take sundry elements from modern horror and science fiction. This includes a found footage-like feel and a monster left mostly to the imagination.

The young actors at the center of "The Signal" all dive impressively into their roles, but it is a treat to see Laurence Fishburne as the enigmatic Doctor Wallace Damon. While his character's name is not exactly subtle, Fishburne gets to display what makes him such a strong presence in everything from "Apocalypse Now" to "The Matrix" films. Acting through the opaque confines of a hazmat suit, Fishburne does not fail to convey a sense of both mystery and menace.

Even as the plot and environs of the movie become intentionally confusing, the story itself never feels confused, and the narrative drive remains strong. As a possibly otherworldly element comes more clearly into play, so does one of this film's most prestigious influences. With wide, very calculated frames and a cold, antiseptic vibe, "The Signal" looks to much more than recent horror and sci-fi. As a director with an excellent sense of visuals and interest in unusual storytelling, William Eubank brings to mind none other than Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick is a massive influence on many filmmakers, but few in the modern industry wear that influence so well. Since "The Blair Witch Project" these types of projects have focused so much on a grainy, handheld and super-realistic feel. "The Signal" dares to break out of that mold by using believable characters but not shying away from a sense of style that may not be super hip but is super effective nonetheless.

William Eubank has always had a clear sense of style. This has been apparent from his work in commercials through his 2011 debut feature, "Love." With "The Signal" Eubank shows off not only an undeniable visual talent but a suitable capacity for storytelling, making this picture so much more than a run of the mill genre film.