Saturday, June 14, 2014

Following The Signal Deep Into the Rabbit Hole

The Signal - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind

Thirty-two year-old writer, cinematographer, and director William Eubank ("Love") along with David Frigerio ("Wreckage") and Eubank's younger brother Carlyle Eubank, construct a Sci-Fi lover's cunning and surreal take on alien contact.  Both beautiful, and clever, "The Signal," does an excellent job of leading you further into the conspiracy and closer to the edge of your seat.  2014 is 25 year-old actor Brenton Thwaites' year.  In April, he starred with Karen Gillan in the horror film "Oculus" and had a small role as Prince Phillip in the Angelina Jolie's "Maleficent."  Later this year Thwaites stars in the long awaited adaptation of Lois Lowry's 1993 Newbery Medal award winner, "The Giver.”  In "The Signal," Thwaites plays Nic, a MIT student.  Laurence Fishburne ("The Matrix," "Event Horizon") takes on another risky role as Dr. Wallace Damon.  In supporting roles are Olivia Cooke ("The Quiet Ones") plays Haley, Nic's girlfriend, and Beau Knapp ("Super 8") is Nic and Haley's friend Jonah.  Nic and Jonah are MIT students driving Haley to California to deliver Haley to Caltech in Los Angeles.  

Nic has muscular dystrophy and needs to us crutches to walk, but Nic loves to run.  He loves the freedom of running, and director Eubanks beautifully starts his film with Nic jogging on a forest trail until he comes to a point where the way is blocked by a raging river.  He and Jonah are MIT students driving cross-country on their way to Caltech to help Nic's girlfriend Haley move before the next semester begins.  They're hackers who almost were expelled from MIT when the real hacker, who goes by the hacker name "Nomad," led the authorities in their direction.  While In a motel room, in the middle of the night, Nic and Jonah trace Nomad's IP address, his signal.  Only to have Haley's computer hacked by Nomad as a technological taunt.  Jonah is ready to take on Nomad, as they are only several hundred miles away, however, Nic is hesitant as he contemplates his girlfriend moving across country and knowing that his condition will worsen.  Although the film is only an hour and a half, director spends time in the first 15 to 20 minutes building character through flashbacks, short scenes of narrative building dialog, and views of the landscape that don't feel rushed but evenly paced.  However as we only get through know Haley and Jonah peripherally while focusing primarily on Nic. Olivia Cooke's Haley character is one dimensional and spends the last hour of the film in either a comatose state or in a state of semi consciousness.  The only real thing about Jonah that we learn is that he is extremely loyal. 


The Signal - Brenton Thwaites | A Constantly Racing Mind


Although Nic is conflicted with the logical choice of not taking a risk and playing it safe by going straight through to Caltech, or to follow the signal which Jonah is sure will lead the to their hacker nemesis, he decides to track down Nomad and expose him for the MIT server hack.  Later that night, the three find themselves in front of a rundown shack off a dark dirt road in the middle of the Nevada desert.  Breaking all rules of common sense and one of the top five rules of horror films, they leave Haley in the car with the doors locked.  Jonah and Nic explore the seemingly empty house.  While searching the basement, the guys hear Haley's screams and Jonah runs up the stairs and Nic hobbles after him with his crutches, finding the car empty, and Haley gone.  Some chaotic shots and an image of Haley being tossed in the air as the scene cuts to black.

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In contrast to the first 30 minutes, the second act is underground, sterile, and visually set against a slightly overexposed white background.  Nic, dazed, confused, and possibly drugged, is dressed in a hospital gown, and confined to a wheelchair is rolled into an interview room where he meets Dr. Wallace Damon (Fishburne).  In a thick padded hazmat suite, Damon questions Nic but offers no information.  Damon is cryptic and vague in his answers.  “Are you from Earth?”  Damon asks.  Nic who realizes that he can't feel his arms, asks Damon why.  Fishburne delivers the answer in a Kafka-esque manner, “Due to circumstances surrounding your condition, I’m afraid that our information is extremely limited.”  "The Signal" provides a new term to our UFO lexicon is Extraterrestrial Biological Entity or E.B.E.  The terms alien contagion, quarantine, and Damon's warning, "I can only you safe from them down here."  More importantly, in this supposedly high-tech research facility, Nic witnesses clocks stuck at 12:30, signs posted upside down, and Damon records the interview on a 1980's era cassette recorder.  Where is Jonah?  Damon's reply "We were unable to recover him," yet Nic converses with the disembodied voice of Jonah through the air-vents.  Nic also witnesses rooms splattered with blood, which the people in hazmat suits scrub down repeatedly.  While in an escape attempt, with the unconscious Haley in tow, Nic rounds a corner a strange experiment involving a cow.  Nobody other than Damon ever talk.  “Are you agitated?”


The Signal - Laurence Fishburne | A Constantly Racing Mind

Laurence Fishburne is an accomplished actor whose roles range from a teenager caught up in the Vietnam War ("Apocalypse Now") to a murderous gang member in "Death Wish II.”  Fishburne's career shifted to Science Fiction in 1997 when he starred in Paul W. S. Anderson's Sci-Fi gothic horror film, "Event Horizon.”  He became a true household name in 1999 when he played the mystical, inspirational, and steadfast captain of the hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar in "The Matrix," "The Matrix Reloaded," and "The Matrix Revolutions."  In 2009, Fishburne played a bank robber in "Armored” and a mentally unbalanced alien planet castaway in "Predators," and a virologist for the CDC in "Contagion."  In 2013, he starred in the "The Colony," a film with some interesting but derivative post-apocalyptic ideas.  In "The Signal," Fishburne's Damon character is mysterious and leaves not only Nic confused, but agitated.  Nic and Damon have daily interrogations that leave Nic pissed on a daily basis.  When asked to match colored shapes Nic screams "...spectral colors of light are more important than their words.”  Or, infuriated by Damon's questions and lack of answers, Nic yells at Damon, "You are a relic protecting ruins."  Damon stays calm and nonplussed throughout the film.  Damon delivers his last line in the film in a familiar Morpheus-esque way.

"You have an extraordinary will to survive."

What keeps the audience from getting agitated with the twists and turns in the plot is Lin Shaye ("Insidious").  She plays a complete religious wacko who aid Nic and Haley.  She preaches to the two to "Take comfort in the thought that THEY are watching over us,” then turning her head upwards she gives an orgasmic vocalization.  When asked by Nic, who THEY are, she then strangely mutters something about "the coming hoards.”  Her demented character also tells the kids to "just push from the inside out!"  Her performance not only provides comic relief to what would be a very self-serious film, but also heightens the mystery of plot.


The Signal - Laurence Fishburne & Lin Shaye | A Constantly Racing Mind


Eubank and company do an excellent job of combining their love of classic Sci-Fi tropes that brings themes of paranoia, identity, and of time and space, which also include elements from "The Bionic Man," "District Nine," "Dark Skies," and even the "Matrix.”  Composer Nima Fakhrara and cinematographer David Lanzenberg's visual choices of close-ups and medium shots give the characters and events a personal connection.  The sights and sound combine to present a visually stylish and musically relevant cinematic experience that reminds one to both versions of Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris.”  The special effects are top-notch in spite of tight budget constraints.  Brenton Thwaites shows us with each outing that he is capable of holding together not only a scene, but also a whole film.  His on-screen presence can be bold, but at time humorous and intimate.  Fishburne's performance, although quirky at times, lends weight to the offbeat conclusion to the film. 


The Signal - Brenton Thwaites & Olivia Cooke | A Constantly Racing Mind





"The Signal," although a low budget genre film, is conceptually and narratively solid.  Cinematically “The Signal” shoots for the stars but diverts strangely into the bizarre dimension of the “Twilight Zone."  Mainstream film critics won't care much for "The Signal," however; Science-Fiction fans will enjoy the familiarity and homage of certain archetypes.  Lawrence Fishburne will be the biggest draw, however, Brenton Thwaites is courageous with his performance, and that boldness is as intense as Fishburne’s stoicism.  "The Signal" is Science Fiction in its true form, unaltered by fantastical elements from fantasy or the horror genres.  If you don’t see “The Signal” in theaters, make sure that you catch it on Blu-ray or DVD.

Movie Data

Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Year:  2014
Staring: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne
Director: William Eubank
Producer(s): Tyler Davidson, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Writer: David Frigerio, Carlyle Eubank
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Date:  6/13/2014