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The Signal

Year: 2014
Production Co: Automatik
Director: William Eubank
Writer: Carlyle Eubank/William Eubank/David Frigerio
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne, Beau Knapp

We think of movies as stories, but some movies reveal directors less interested in or less talented with the necessary elements of a good yarn than they are the quality of the images on screen. The Signal writer/director William Eubank seems to be one of those. However much money he had in his (presumably low) budget he knows how to compose a shot, deploy a mood and manage the right amount of tension and action in a scene. He's without doubt a good film director.

The story in The Signal is less successful. After setting up a genuinely interesting mystery replete with very cinematic clues and hints about what's really happening, the explanation/climax is at once too ambitious to really work with everything that came before and doesn't make much sense.

It also seems to quite roughly shift between states, wanting to encompass modern high tech fluency and far-out alien visitation drama and kind of dropping one unceremoniously to pick the other up.

But the skill in the directing goes beyond just the attention-grabbing stuff. In introducing Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), Eubank does much more than just point the camera at exposition and character setup.

Bordering on mumblecore (but not nearly as irritating) in its realism, it shows the trio driving across the country to drop Haley off at college. Nic, her boyfriend, is suffering a skeletal/nervous condition and it's alluded to that it will eventually render him paralysed, and he's drawing away from Haley so he doesn't hurt her, putting strain on their relationship. He and Jonah are also on the trail of a master cyberhacker who it seems has been taunting them, and when they track the guy's whereabouts and realise it's on their way, they decide to call in and confront him.

When they pull up to a dishevelled shack late at night in the middle of nowhere that seems to be abandoned, things turn. While searching through the detritus in the shack the guys hear Haley scream in terror in the car outside and when they run out to see what's wrong a mysterious light is rising into the night, Haley nowhere to be found.

Nic wakes up to find himself restrained in a hospital, attended to by what seems to be military staff in hazmat suits. One of them, the disconcertingly unflappable Damon (Laurence Fishburne), explains that they were in contact with extraterrestrial entities, that Haley and Jonah are still in comas and that all three will be taken care of.

Nic rails against his captivity, demanding to see his friends and cooperating as much as he feels like he needs to so he can get free. Damon's explanations of what's gone on and what will happen are hazy and indirect and Nic resolves to get Haley and Jonah and escape, if he can.

The sting is on, and when he gets out, Nic's (of course) going to learn the awful truth of where he really is and who Damon actually is in classic last-scene-twist fashion. The problem is, even if it's what you think it is, it's a little bit of a letdown. However, Eubank and his DP and VFX people have constructed an amazing showreel for what they could do with a really well scripted screen story.

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