Friday, June 06, 2014

The Signal

Am I allowed to post this right now? I'm half-joking, but studios and the publicity companies they hire can send some mixed messages. I'm pretty sure the email I got about a press screening asked that reviews be held, I think until May 28th, although director William Eubank made the usual request to tweet, post on Facebook, and get the word out. It always makes me wonder whether the same review posted on eFilmCritic, on this blog, on IMDB, as a Letterboxd entry, or inside a Facebook status would only be considered a breach on certain sites. It's happened before.

And, in this case, the request to spread the word did come straight from filmmaker William Eubank, seen here with the Brattle's Ned Hinkle:

The Brattle's Ned Hinkle & THE SIGNAL's William Eubank

A funny thing about independent filmmaking in general and genre work under that umbrella in particular is that filmmakers can be working their butts off to make something happen for years before popping into view again, especially as they're moving up the ladder, so William Eubank's name doesn't mean a whole lot to me until he mentions that his previous film was done with a band and called Love. At that point I have the "oh! That guy/movie!" reaction, remembering the evening I saw that as a pretty weird one because the band's fans took over Hall from the Fantasia regulars, and also that it was another good-looking movie that was a vague mess story-wise (although at the time I just shrugged my shoulders and said "musicians", because what more explanation do you need?). I think I remembered the story of him and his brother building the full-size space station set in their parents' expansive back yard before he mentioned it this time around, but I'm not sure.

This time around, the stories were about how they were sitting in the same facilities as Transcendence and how, as you might expect, the big studio movie got a lot more consideration than his indie. They were able to take some advantage of it, though - apparently Wally Pfister decided he loved the corridors The Signal was shooting, so they were able to get access to some higher-end equipment in trade.

I wish I liked this movie more, if only because between this, Transcendence, Under the Skin, and a few others, I seem to be talking about movie's dressing up as smart science fiction but ending up rather hollow far too much of late, even if there is the likes of Her, The Machine, The Congress, and hopefully Interstellar to compensate. That Eubank seems to be really good at some things makes what doesn't work more disappointing; maybe he's just a guy that needs someone else to write the script.

I've got a few points that involve discussing the whole movie (including the end), but I'll save that for after the EFC excerpt.

The Signal

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (preview, DCP)

Mystery is not enough. Don't misunderstand, it's terrific when a story gets one to lean closer, tantalized by what's going on, and creating that feeling is a matter of much more than leaving some details out while hinting that others connect in some way. Human beings tend to seen questions and answers as part of pairs, though, building all kinds of ways to get from one to the other, and that's a big part of where The Signal falls down, telling half a story very well but hoping as hard as it can that the audience isn't particularly interested in the rest.

It starts out with three MIT students driving cross-country; Haley (Olivia Cooke) will soon be starting grad school in Pasadena, which will make her relationship with Nic (Brenton Thwaites) even more difficult than the degenerative condition in his legs is already managing. Also along for the ride is Jonah (Beau Knapp), tracking a malicious hacker who got the guys into some trouble. The trail leads to a spot in the desert just a few hours out of their way, but when they get there... Well, things get weird, and the next thing Nic knows, he's waking up in the a windowless facility and a man in a hazmat suit (Laurence Fishburne) is asking him questions he can't answer.

Nested mysteries that aren't all answered at once aren't a bad thing, but co-writer and director William Eubank hits the restrictions of this formula pretty quickly, as Nic and Fishburne's Dr. Wallace Damon sit across from each other at a table, refusing to answer each other's questions out of what seems to be sheer stubbornness, rather than some reason that would make the standoff interesting rather than a stalling tactic. Things eventually start happening, and a lot of the time it gets fairly exciting in the moment, but it's frustrating when an explanation that fits is rendered moot by the need to have mysteries go another level deep, or for Eubank to supply more puzzle pieces and other distractions because the audience is about to figure out what they've got doesn't add up. And that's before just groaning at how revelations seem to come from figuring out word and number puzzles that only seem to exist to give information to prisoners who are supposed to remain in the dark (a firing offense in any massive conspiracy I run, although I'd write a nice letter of recommendation to GAMES Magazine) - or how a character comes out of a coma without explanation just as soon as it goes from convenient to inconvenient.

Full review at EFC


I say during the review that there's a bit of a visible arc for Nic, and it's an obvious enough one that I feel a bit dim for not exactly grabbing on to it before I was halfway through the review, but I think that is partially because the movie was content to let it play out in the background, and when push came to shove, valued socks over digging into it.

There are numerous flashback moments in the first act to Nic running by himself in the woods, and I suspect that the point is to show that his legs' current weakness is degenerative, which is why he goes for the "I release you" type of breakup with Haley, establishing a certain sort of lunkheaded nobility. It also contributes to the horrific nature of the second act: He's in a wheelchair, the use of his legs completely gone, more or less what he'd feared from the start.

Except... I don't think they pushed that enough in the beginning. What if we knew from the start that running wasn't just something he used to be able to do, but something that was really important to him. Replace the graduation tassel dangling from his mirror with a track-and-field trophy. Put in scenes where he doesn't recognize that he's almost as good with having as he is with running; really have his self-worth wrecked. That would just amplify the horror of being in the chair in the middle. The scene where he discovered his robotic legs is already terrific, but what if it had that little extra jolt of seeing a huge party of who he is typed away?

And then, after? That scene where he chases down the truck is nifty, but it's pretty utilitarian and could use an injection of "this guy loves to run and now he can run faster than he ever dreamed!" Especially if the filmmakers intended for this all to mean something, even something as small as having the capture not realize that they had given super-legs to someone who knew what to do with them. They could have built a story that was an allegory for someone holding progress back, or how sometimes you've got to start from scratch, or how getting what you want sometimes comes at too dear a price - especially if Haley and Jonah also got augmentations that matched their skills. It would be being awful close to Chronicle or any other alt-superhero story, I suppose, but folks do respond to those rather than just absorb them.

Instead, stuff just keeps happening in ways that bring the audience to a next action scene but don't really reveal a consistent world or motivations afterwards. It all builds to a last scene that is, in its way, pretty much the same as that of Dark City, but without having earned that level of strangeness or giving the audience and characters a moment to ponder and react. In some ways, it circles back around to what I said about mystery at the top: In Dark City, seeing the petri dish-shaped spaceship explicitly and by implication affirms that there is no Shell Beach, that the humans were part of an experiment, and now the time has come to rise up against their captors and make the world their own. In The Signal, it reaffirms that Nic doesn't know what's going on, that his friends died for nothing, and that any sort of answers or resolution will have to wait for a sequel that either won't happen or which, due to how genre cinema acquisitions usually work, will be made by someone else entirely.

Some folks like that sort of thing, but I'm a fan of endings and victories. That the route there comes via better characterization and tighter mythology is a bonus.


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