PLOT: Three young adults (Thwaites, Knapp, Cooke) are captured by a strange government agency when trying to locate a hacker who has been trolling them.
WHO'S IT FOR? Viewers who like watching conspiracy films with only the illusion of high intelligence.
As hungry indie filmmakers clash for a fleeting part in the multiplex they yearn to someday star in, some put a feature film's worth of effort into what is unofficially titled the Calling Card Movie. A concept (not a categorization), the CCM is not to be associated with every debut or bigger break for directors trying to create public careers from their craft. These are the independent projects that take creative freedoms hostage, at the sake of a distinct filmmaking attitude or style, in order to market themselves for a bigger gig.
This week the CCM finds a strong example in The Signal, the second film by Love director William Eubank. A Sundance 2014 selection that is now playing at select theaters, Eubank specifically lowers a high concept to simple ideas to create something that is familiar and easy. It is less a reminder of the exploratory potential of non-studio film, but of what is playing next door at the multiplex, albeit with more of the simple thrills of action and explosions.
Not to be confused by its appetite for a twist, The Signal is a very directly told story with tidy characters, like Thwaites' Nic (whose cerebral palsy is the film's only creative spark, and is snuffed out by the end) to Beau Knapp's sidekick with glasses, to the third member and love interest (Olivia Cooke) whom Tim Negoda would designate as "The Girl." It begins with the slow-burning vagueness like smaller-budgeted DIY films like Mike Cahill's Another Earth or Zal Batmanglij's The Sound of My Voice, but becomes more point blank than both of those films combined, even with The Signal's open door conclusion. The Signal uses the delicate concept of mystery just to fill in attention span gaps, utilizing post-Spielberg paranoia where CGI spectacle is not present. With numerous scenes misguided in this film because of their lack of tension, these model moments practically flash budget signs that promise a more sophisticated, popular thrill if only some money were involved. Visually, The Signal stands out with a few slow motion shots of anguished action, which arrive at the third act. But even those are packaged like teasers of what Eubank could only do with a superhero movie, or most specifically a supped-up remake of WarGames.
For what twists this movie does offer, of which I will try to survey tactfully, the "challenging" idea of this movie stays within very stable grounds. The twists are remarkably simple, not only in their ease but in their mistaken cleverness, banking on a viewer's astonishment at surprise elementary school math, or in not remembering the name of the town in Troll 2. Either Eubank has made this faux-intellectual piece of sci-fi for a very simple viewing experience, or more specifically he has made it for two entities that control the big bucks of Movie Land - crusty Hollywood honchos looking to find the Steve Madden to their Jordan Belfort, and even powerful, the moviegoing public, who have earned a negative but not entirely true image of only accepting that which is like something else. The Signal recognizes that latter feature about the general audience and stubbornly plays to it.
A sales pitch from a smart guy lowering himself to be like others, The Signal is the The Kings of Summer from last year, a CCM that speaks to familiarity in its tone, and treats style as a cycle. Eubank and other CCM directors of past and present obviously have every right to make a film for whatever intention they may so desire, but their inclinations to use such artistic freedom to such horizontal ends is admittedly disheartening. The conspiracy of The Signal is not that of some hacker tracking down kids, but of someone sabotaging himself to secure a questionable future.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10