Have you seen Rubber? If you missed it, it’s about a mysteriously sentient tire that rolls around the desert murdering animals and people with its unfathomable, steel-belted radial tire mind. Lots of people hated it, and you if want to know why, just re-read the previous sentence. I thought it was occasionally funny, well-shot, and unsettlingly strange, but by the end I was glad it was over, kind of like how I felt at the end of The Signal.
While Rubber aimed to be a modern B-movie, The Signal’s dreamy interludes, uncertain narrative, and slow pacing make it something of a confusing mess. It’s a good-looking mess, but eerie atmospherics and silently pondered vistas do not a good movie make.
Maybe it’s because it’s only the second directorial effort by cinematographer William Eubank. In his first outing as a director, the 2011 sci-fi drama Love, he mined the ambiguity of isolation (an astronaut goes on a solo mission to investigate the abandoned International Space Station) to tell a story, though the tale got lost along the way. If mood is his style, so be it. The plot of The Signal is fairly simple, but Eubank’s fascination with mopey stares into the middle distance and the brooding gravity of empty hallways puts the plot too far on the back burner.
Still, before the listless pacing gets in the way, there’s enough to keep you guessing, understanding that “guessing” is not the same as “interested.” Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites stars as Nick Eastman, an MIT freshman on a road trip with his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) and best friend Jonah (Beau Breck) to California. They’re out to move Haley into Caltech, but Nick and Jonah are also on the trail of Nomad, a hacker who had gotten them in trouble by breaking into MIT’s servers. A high-school cross-country star, Nick has some sort of degenerative condition that requires him to walk with crutches. Combined with the impending struggle of a bicoastal relationship, he insists to Haley that he doesn’t want to hold her back. Eubank seems to equate this notion of sacrifice with love, but it’s really more of an excuse for his characters to cast tortured gazes across desert canyons and parking lots.
Nick and Haley’s simmering couplefight takes a backseat (actually, it more or less agrees to ride in the trunk) to finding Nomad, which leads the trio to an abandoned shack where the combination of night-time and shaky handheld camera footage facilitate blurry, scary things. Nick awakens in a mysterious hospital unable to move his legs at all, answering maddeningly patient questions from Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne). Damon, forever armored in a bulky biohazard suit, explains that all three have been exposed to an extraterrestrial biological entity and have been quarantined for their own safety and to keep them from contaminating the rest of the world. The second act is essentially Nick trying to break himself and a comatose Haley free, leading to some silly reveals until the film basically just runs out of steam and stops.
Nick’s failing legs, as even the drowsiest moviegoer will realize, were just a plot device –– halfway through, he discovers that his legs, useless in the facility and perpetually covered in a blanket, have been replaced with robotics, and when he is later reunited with Jonah, you don’t have to wonder what Jonah is hiding under a stolen hazmat suit. (Hint: It rhymes with “robot arms.”)
From there, the movie echoes the last act of E.T. as Damon and a gang of Area 51 military police try to apprehend their fleeing research subjects, but because Eubank takes so long to parse out the clues and details leading to the film’s inevitable twist ending, you really just want them to get there.
Despite his meandering approach to storytelling, Eubank does well by his actors. Thwaites, Breck, and Cooke manage to duck the perils of overacting, though there’s not a lot of range required. Fishburne’s Dr. Damon is as measured and contemplative as a morphine drip, as if he decided to take his iconic turn as The Matrix’s Morpheus and graft it onto Nurse Ratched.
Though Eubank’s gorgeous shots and long takes might juice the average cinephile, they’re way too focused on the journey instead of the destination. The guys’ robot parts are really just an excuse to give them super powers –– why do the aliens only fuse arms and legs onto their human subjects? –– that only barely get used, and when the plot literally crashes into its ending, you kind of wonder whether the filmmakers didn’t really know what story they were telling.
Starring Lawrence Fishburne, Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, and Beau Breck. Directed by William Eubank. Written by Caryle Eubank, David Frigerio, and William Eubank and Rated PG-13.