By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
How much character development should a movie provide for its audience so that they care about said characters? This is a question I pondered after leaving William Eubank’s film The Signal. I have my screening guest to thank for making me take this subject under consideration. As the closing credits rolled, she turns to me and asks, “Was I supposed to care because I really didn’t.” As for me, I actually cared a little bit about the mysterious and unnerving events taking place to characters Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke), and Jonah (Beau Knapp). They seemed like good people with likable personalities. Granted, they make some highly questionable decisions that get them into a disturbing and bizarre situation. However, I came to realize that though these characters could have benefited from better development, that this was the least of the issues in this absorbing and edgy science fiction thriller.
Nic, Haley and Jonah are three M.I.T. students caught up in the world of computer hacking. Their ongoing rivalry with a hacker named Nomad diverts them from a road trip through Nevada. Nic and Jonah manage to figure out his location and decide to pursue him. The three students end up in what appears to be an old abandoned mobile home in the desert. A confrontation with unknown assailants takes place and Nic gets rendered unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself quarantined in a government facility and realizes that his life will never ever be the same.
Directed by William Eubank who co-wrote the script with Carlyle Eubank, The Signal does work nicely as a suspenseful thriller. The movie plays out like a slow boiler that builds up the pressure until its explosive and thrilling ending. As for the issue of character development here, the Eubanks could have made a stronger case for their characters had there been a tad more insight into who these college kids are, but I think we, the audience, get enough information to care a little about them. At least for me, it was enough. It is an issue of quantity versus quality. The information on our leads is limited, but they exude enough personality to earn some empathy. It also certainly helps that Thwaites, Cooke, and Knapp really sell their characters with some strong and effective performances.
As I stated above, they do make some questionable decisions, but they’re not the only ones. In fact, the motivations of the organization, led by Damon (Laurence Fishburne in a creepy and mysteriously chilling role ) who is holding Nic, Haley, and Jonah captive, raise multiple questions, especially when the truth gets revealed. I realize that scant information is offered in the vein of building up mystery and suspense, but the reveal at the end doesn’t completely satisfy. I’m not certain if Eubanks has a sequel in mind to answer these questions or clarify what exactly Damon and his group hope to accomplish.
Nevertheless, I cannot deny that Eubank’s film kept me on the edge of my seat and kept me completely engrossed. I cared enough about the characters, but had trouble making sense of why the antagonists (for lack of a better term) cared about these characters. The Signal is definitely a head scratcher, but an enjoyable one at that. There are better movies opening this weekend, but for people looking for something different from the usual summer blockbuster, they could do much worse.