The best thing to be said about “The Signal” is that it has the veneer of thinking-man’s science fiction.
The answers don’t come easily in William Eubank’s puzzler, which has the framing and ominous, elliptical feel of a film by Andrei Tarkovsky or Stanley Kubrick.
When the fog does lift, when the seemingly impenetrable mystery that sustains most of the movie is finally explicated, it’s hard to not feel a significant letdown.
Without getting into specifics, the first clue is the presence of Laurence Fishburne, who once played Morpheus in “The Matrix,” as what appears to be a dead-eyed government type, clad in a hazmat suit and tasked with explaining things to our protagonists.
A lot doesn’t add up for MIT students Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) as they chase down a prolific hacker in the Nevada desert and blackout amid some sort of chaotic disturbance. Nic awakes inside some sort of antiseptic underground facility and must figure out why he’s there and why its employees won’t let him leave.
It’s an intriguing premise, to be sure, and the filmmaker engages by keeping the action just out of reach. Warm, tonal flashback montages clash with the harsh, jarring violence of this nightmarish place. Eubank occasionally overdoes the slow-motion; the movie is sometimes too pretty, but he otherwise seems consciously engaged in making the audience think.
Unfortunately, there just isn’t all that much to think about. The movie hints at some sort of greater meaning, a commentary on the human condition today, but it never gets there. “The Signal” is obsessed with the surface, the look, of classic sci-fi. It wants to matter, but when you get down to it, the film is just one big knockoff.
Directed by William Eubank | Starring Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne | Rated PG-13