In the clever new science-fiction thriller The Signal, it’s the known unknown that delivers the film’s few but effectively chilling moments. Pity the entrapped but intrepid trio who find themselves in a bizarre, escalating nightmare but have no idea what is happening.
They just know that they have stumbled into something bad.
William Eubank directed and co-wrote the film, dipping into a minimal bag of special effects to conjure up an eerie air of paranoia and menace. And he seems to be doing it while relying on viewers to stay with him for what turns out to be a mundane, even hokey, ending revelation.
Eubank methodically sets up his premise of a trio of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students on a road trip. The trip briefly takes them through the Grand Canyon and then on into Nevada. Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), seem eager to detour their trip to track down an anonymous hacker who caused them trouble in school and continues to taunt them. Haley (Olivia Cooke) goes along reluctantly.
Their search leads them to a deserted farmhouse, a creepy shack that invites everyone in for an actual “don’t-go-in-the-basement” moment.
Everything goes dark. Nic wakes up in a white-walled compound, sitting across from a space-suited (or hazmat-suited Damon (Laurence Fishburne). The white-coated enigma continuously questions Nic, probing him with queries that provide little exposition, leaving viewers almost as ignorant as Nic.
From there, Eubank sets up various obstacles and challenges for Nic to escape, find Jonah, and rescue Haley, all while the young man maneuvers with a distinct handicap that won’t be revealed here. These third-act contrivances, not to mention heroics, show the narrative’s weakness.
But Eubank keeps everything moving along fairly swiftly, enough so to disguise most of the absurdities. And when the fireworks finally begin, it’s no surprise that — this being America — even when working with advanced, otherworldly technology, the film’s biggest jolt comes with a shot from a handgun.
Ultimately, the seemingly low-budget The Signal, with its not-yet-recognizable young cast, delivers some goofy but deadly serious fun.
Rated PG-13, 95 minutes.
Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills 30 and the Angelika Film Center Dallas.