There's still one kind of dread that today's genre filmmakers can reliably stir up: that fear that everything we've been watching on screen is going to be upended by some last-minute twist, that all the clues and portents we've puzzled over will be swept away in favor of some revelation so big that nothing preceding it actually needs to add up to it — like, what if the whole time Kevin Spacey's just been making it all up as a story to soothe his dog? And maybe the dog's actually been dead since the first scene? (Kevin Spacey is not in The Signal. Perhaps that's the twist.)
After its first-rate opening, in which a pair of MIT code-bros pick through a creepy desert house in the middle of the night, The Signal never stops suggesting it's barreling toward one of those twists.
There are clues everywhere. At the end of their break-in, scalding light pours down from the heavens, we glimpse a body ripped into the air, and then the chief code-bro wakes up in some hospital where the clocks don't work, the tech's all Lost-island retro, and a doctor played by Laurence Fishburne is asking him to identify simple shapes and colors.
"Have you had an encounter with an E.B.E.?" Fishburne asks, his face seemingly magnified a couple times by the face shield of his hazmat suit. He pauses, allows some drama to swell, and then clarifies: "An extraterrestrial biological entity?"
Fishburne's character records that conversation on a '70s cassette player. This is not how non-twist doctors behave.
Code-bro, played with the requisite panicky incomprehension by Brenton Thwaites, can't say whether he's seen an E.B.E. All he knows is that he's locked in a bedroom, that he might be infected with extraterrestrial contagions, and that his MIT buddy — imprisoned elsewhere in Twist-Ending Hospital — occasionally whispers to him through an air vent, a development so convenient you can't buy it for a second.
The guys, both supposedly smart, plot together in what they presume is secret. Since no one could believe this isn't set up by Fishburne, et al., the audience is stuck a step ahead of the characters, but not in any suspenseful way; we're just waiting out these scenes in order to learn what's really going on, even when those scenes are well-crafted.
The persuasive power of individual moments suggests that director William Eubank has a bright future — and could push himself harder when writing his scripts. He gives us crisp, exciting breakouts and desert showdowns, and the hero develops something like a superpower, which inspires one scene of effective man-versus-truck stuntwork.
But the drama keeps collapsing. On the lam, long-separated characters whom the authorities can't locate happen to bump into each other in a desert hiding spot, which is either an insulting coincidence or another setup, not that that's any more satisfying.
The great frustration of stories that gun for the twist rather than narrative coherence: They task audiences with making excuses for sloppy plotting, with accepting dumb stuff now in the promise of something clever later.
What comes in this case isn't clever at all. Climactic revelations upend all expectations — except the expectation that precisely that will happen. The surprise makes most of what came before not just inconsequential but risible. Without giving anything away, here's the question worth asking afterward: If it was actually [INSERT SPOILER HERE] all along, why would [SPOILER] ever have bothered to [ALMOST EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN THE MOVIE]? (That works for most twist movies, actually.)
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For all that, Eubank and his production team ace the sinister atmosphere in the film's first half, achieving more satisfying effects with fluorescents and two-way mirrors than they do later with guns and bionic limbs. Code-bro's first tour of his mystery clinic promises creepiness the film can't live up to: In a sleek, gliding sequence, he's wheeled about by orderlies, also in full hazmat gear, past rooms where other orderlies mop effluvia off the walls. There's also cruel, slow-building tension in a scene where he attempts to wheel his way out of the hospital, his comatose girlfriend on a gurney tied to his wheelchair.
I'm only now mentioning the girlfriend character, as being dragged around by the hero is pretty much the extent of her role. Olivia Cooke has to play sleepy or sleeping in all but the earliest scenes, and even those aren't much better. A heartbeat after her first line of dialogue, The Signal cuts to show us her ass in panties.
You know what could have made a thrilling twist? Developing the established story, themes and characters into something satisfying before trying to splatter our minds all over the theater like chunks of Gallagher's watermelons.
THE SIGNAL | Directed by William Eubank | Focus Features | Citywide