This genre shifting and back-loaded signal is mostly noise
Curious MIT computer geeks are swept up in a byzantine mystery throughout The Signal, a science fiction thriller which offs itself in its closing third when answers begin to spill over. Nic (Brenton Thwaites) leads a scaled down cast against a purposefully emotionless Laurence Fishburne in a dialog on human will and our inherent propensity to explore.
Alluring and vague, Signal clashes with itself, beginning in an emotional reality before indiscriminately cutting to black and leaving Nic alone in a room with a Hazmat-cloaked Damon (Fishburne).
Assumptions lead to the belief that this is a cordoned off government facility. That speaks to either the movie going audience’s sense of cliché or a deeper embedded fear over the nation’s political oversight. Either way, it’s wrong. It’s too simple for The Signal. Nic was led to the situation by a bothersome and privacy invading hacker named Nomad, with the eventual plan transcending reality-based concepts.
These films are risky. They’re predicated on the richness of their mystery. Critics cannot spoil them and require disclaimers lest they say too much. Trailers also need to be ambiguous. That sense of marketable build-up creates anticipation, and based on individual personalities, films like The Signal are ultimately 50/50 ventures – only half of the audience will follow along.
Here, director William Eubank’s second feature is one to stray into overboard territory. Some impressively invisible special effects break through budgetary restraints, if not enough to hold this one together. If anything, The Signal sticks to the solemn approach too long, and the whiz bang third act introduces as many questions as it does answers. Tricky editing is a bother as well, switching places and times with an errant randomness only adding to the belligerent method of story development.
Credit where it’s due however: The Signal is certainly new. Independent features can travel without high dollar producers dictating ideas or be forced into the frame of source material. Certainly, The Signal feels free to explore and try things, almost inserting itself into a secondary genre in the process. The choice is errant but it’s hard to say there are no fresh ideas.
On a budget, this feature still has some visual moments. While usually dour with an antiseptic color palette – pure whites and hints of fluorescent yellows – some flashback scenes induce extreme shades of green. By the finale, heavy rounds of oranges add a comfortable warmth to the proceedings. Varied and inviting, color work is appealing.
There are no distinctive technical flaws. Noise is avoided even as digital effects begin to make the rounds and transfer work to Blu-ray is satisfying without flubs. Compression is spectacular if you’re a numbers person, with bitrates astonishingly high for such a small film. Encoding work rarely dropped below 30 Mbps in spot checks.
Resolution feels a little tepid in spots, lacking the punch needed to sell some of the exterior sights completed in New Mexico. Heavy close-ups will dominate the screen, while medium and long shots prove a touch lacking. There are also moments of splotchy digital work which is inconsistently noticed. Faces can appear smoothed.
Of final note are the black levels which surrender early and never find ground. Typically, they’re sunk into shades of blue or brown without the needed impact. Their weight, or lack thereof rather, saps contrast and depth.
Signal sounds better than its budget, with aggressive rounds of ambiance adding a strong sense of place. It’s better than movies six times the cost. Insects, rain, storms, crowded diners, PA speakers, sirens; this all becomes impressive in terms of location. Even the score is set to “havoc,” dipping between channels and notes rapidly to convey a sense of disorientation. Front channel separation is strong.
All of this is done without any direct action scenes. Major pieces are done with slow motion, creating a droning, powerful bit of bass. Natural gunfire has an airy quality rather than a forceful effect, carrying between channels as shots are sent toward the characters. This is highly enjoyable work albeit in a different way than the expected force of massive blockbusters.
Commentary work includes director William Eubank joined by co-writers Carlyle Eubank, and David Frigerio. A behind-the-scenes featurette is composed of raw footage from the set, an always appropriate way to show the chaos of filmmaking. Deleted and extended scenes run 10-minutes in a montage and there’s a short blooper separate from the rest of the bonuses.
Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.