Review: 'The Signal' forgets that the best sci-fi doesn't overexplain everything

Brenton Thwaites in 'The Signal'
Brenton Thwaites in 'The Signal'
Photo by Focus Features
| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Science-fiction cinema doesn't get much more beautifully strange than “The Signal.”

An alien-interaction thriller that borrows from generations of such films that preceded it, it has the visual tone, production design and especially sound design to rival the best recent films in the genre.

It features a compelling young cast and a wizened, inscrutable vet of the genre as the chief antagonist.

And then the filmmakers trip over themselves with a too-conventional/too exposition-heavy “Let us explain this to you” finale that kind of unravels the strangeness that preceded it.

“The Signal” begins as three college kids played by Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp are driving a battered Volvo cross-country. They're M.I.T. students, and they're being hounded by a hacker.

“Nomad” is “messing with us again,” Nic (Thwaites) warns Jonah (Knapp). They taunt the hacker, and the hacker taunts back — turning on the camera of a nearby computer in the hotel room they've just checked into, posting traffic-camera shots of their trek, messing with their heads.

Nic, who suffers from a debilitating illness that has him on crutches, ignores his girlfriend's first warning. (“You guys should just stop taunting him.”)

Nic used to be a jock, a cross-country star. Now, looking at a less-and-less mobile future, he's moving that girlfriend, Haley (Cooke), across country where she'll attend Cal Tech. He's irked, and he's arrogant.

He and Jonah trace Nomad to an address in the middle of the Nevada desert. “This doesn't look right,” especially in the dark. And “Nic, you know this is stupid, right?” has no effect.

Next thing you know, it's screams, a supernatural event and Nic wakes up in what appears to be an underground research lab of the type we've seen in films from “The Andromeda Strain” to “The Stand,” where everybody wears elaborate hazmat suits, including Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who quietly, calmly, asks questions. And gives one answer: “You've made contact.”

Thwaites, (“Maleficent”) makes a great, empathetic presence at the center of this, and Knapp (“Super 8”) a credible foil, even if the hacker with thick glasses is a genre cliche.

What makes “The Signal” work, up until it turns predictable, is the world they place these characters in. Meghan C. Rogers' production design, David Lanzenberg's cinematography, Nima Fakhrara's eerie score and the overall sound design are top drawer.

So, even though “Signal” isn't great sci-fi, you'd never know it to look at it and listen to it.

Roger Moore is a staff writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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