In a time where science fiction is struggling to hold solid ground, from an awfully forgettable Robocop to Johnny Depp’s abysmal Transcendence, is Focus Features ready to blow audiences away with the next District 9? No, not a sequel to District 9 – sorry to get your hopes up Wikus fans – but another lesser-known genre production that sweeps the sci-fi community off their feet. If you’ve inquisitively clicked on this review, you already know that hopeful film is The Signal, a small festival flick that made a pretty huge impact on some power players. Of course, we here at WGTC are the power-iest players of all (or so I tell myself), so what’s our take on William Eubank’s techy darling? Since I walked out with an invigorated grin, I’d rank The Signal leaps and bounds beyond the “intellectual” drivel I’ve witnessed so far this year – but will you agree?
Out of pure respect to the viewing population, my plot recap is going to be as short as possible. Revealing later plot details would be like telling you Wikus turns into an alien before District 9 even came out – and don’t you dare cry spoiler alert. It’s been five years, if you haven’t seen District 9 yet, I pity your Sharlto Copley-less soul.
Nic Eastman (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley Peterson (Olivia Cooke), and best friend Jonah Breck (Beau Knapp) are driving Haley to college when a mysterious hacker pops back up, after previously almost getting the boys expelled from college. Tracing their cocky adversary, the boys are able to triangulate his position and reveal a supposed location, but Haley tries to downplay the idea of confronting the hacker face to face. Ignoring their friend, the boys ultimately decide that such an opportunity is too enticing to pass up, but instead of finding some man sitting on his computer, something spectacular is discovered – and the “signal” presents itself.
While sharing a petty cab with a female colleague at this year’s South By Southwest festival, she remarked that young Brenton Thwaites was about to “blow up” – as they say in the biz. Only knowing him from Oculus at that point, I hesitantly listened on, knowing nothing about the supposedly hot young star. But after watching The Signal, I’m starting to understand why some are putting all their eggs in Thwaites’ basket. Stretches of Eubank’s film include Thwaites talking alone, stuck in mysterious rooms by his lonesome. It’s here that Brenton flexes strong performance muscles that clearly show he’s capable of carrying weighty productions as the sole focal point. Seamlessly transitioning between overwhelming emotional responses of sadness, confusion, and survivalist instincts, Thwaite’s range sports great promise, only made more impressive by his commanding screen presence.
The Signal, much like good sci-fi should, is visually built on techy set-pieces and some astonishing moments of beautifully framed action shots, highlighting cinematographer David Lanzenberg’s talented eye. Playing with slow-motion, ripple effects, waves, and other kinetic filming methods that become more prevalent as Thwaites’ story unfolds, Lanzenberg captures both action and tension while flashing highly detailed and crystal clear artwork – perfectly exemplified by Jonah’s “Hulk smash” phase. Dust flies, rubble erupts from the ground, soldiers are thrown about, but it all looks so whimsical – a warranted blend of fantasy and reality. If Wally Pfister only served as cinematographer on Transcendence, I truly believe it’d look exactly how The Signal proudly displays itself.
Science fiction is only as good as its thought provoking nature or flashy intergalactic battles, whichever mindset is more prevalent, and since lightsabers and lasers don’t make any surprise insertions, The Signal relies heavily on technological advancement and bigger-picture storytelling. Eubank toys with our emotions, plays with our cognitive reasoning, then fully envelopes us in a dub-steppy world of gadgetry and future fiction both engaging and enjoyable. We’re not exactly challenged by hidden messages about governmental strife, climate destruction, or hefty thoughts. Instead, The Signal introduces a story that twists what we perceive as normal. Enough “OOOHS” and “AHHHS” guide viewers through murky secrets, but once The Signal reveals what’s hidden behind curtain number one, the hook is tugged and we’re reeled in like a hypnotized fish – though patience is required during an elongated, and sometimes slow, build-up.
Curb your expectations – The Signal is not the next District 9, but it’s a damn fine example of provocative and thoughtful science fiction with a gorgeous cinematic bite. Oculus may have kickstarted a Brenton Thwaites discussion, but William Eubank makes a legitimate star out of the up-and-coming actor, proving both chops and presence represent no challenge. A successfully spacey story and proper acting all in the same indie winner? While being “agitated” by The Signal may not sound like a positive experience, I promise this description is nothing but a cheeky marketing ploy – I beg of you, become “agitated.” For your own good.
The Signal is a welcome "agitation" that makes some of Hollywood's latest sci-fi blunders nothing but a distant memory.