Review: 'The Signal' forgets that the best sci-fi doesn't overexplain everything
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.