Exceedingly stylish and ultimately quite silly, “The Signal” is a sci-fi head trip better appreciated for the journey than the destination. The less audiences know going in, the more intrigued they’ll be by the story’s not entirely predictable twists and turns. But a good deal of the fun, and some of the best visual surprises, may have to be compromised in order to lure those audiences into theaters if Focus Features (which inherited the project in the recent FilmDistrict takeover) plans a wide release. Commercial prospects nevertheless appear modest for such an idiosyncratic pic with a relatively low-profile cast.
Indebted to both “District 9” and “The Blair Witch Project,” but unlikely to enjoy either of those films’ sleeper success, “The Signal” has absolutely no relation to the low-budget horror triptych of the same name that premiered in Sundance’s Park City at Midnight section seven years ago. Instead, director William Eubank’s sophomore feature begins with hacker pals Nic (Brenton Thwaites) — coping with the early stages of MS — and Jonah (Beau Knapp) tracking a mysterious online presence dubbed Nomad who taunts and tantalizes them in equal measure. The boys get so wound up, they agree to meet Nomad face-to-face, with Nic’s wide-eyed g.f., Haley (Olivia Cooke), in tow.
That decision leads to a sequence right out of “Blair Witch,” or at least “Catfish,” in which the three find themselves inside an eerie abandoned house at night and the story’s sci-fi twists really start to escalate. After blacking out, Nic wakes up in a government facility isolated and confused. He’s asked to recount what happened by Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), a steely and formidable government agent who gravely intones things like, “You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” and forces Nic to doubt his own sanity. Is that really Jonah’s voice he hears through his air duct at night? And what happened to Haley, who appears to be comatose in a nearby private room?
At a certain point Nic escapes his captivity, only to encounter even more eccentric strangers like the Cardigan Lady (Lin Shaye) who cautions him to listen with his mouth open. That’s also about the time the film pulls its flashiest twist, which turns Nic into something like the Six Billion Dollar Teen as Eubank stages a sequence involving Nic, Haley and a truck driver that would’ve made the young James Cameron proud. Unfortunately, it’s also the clear highlight of a film more interested in surface flash than in narrative coherence or character depth.
Pic’s exquisite visual design is the real star, from the blindingly white, menacing interiors of Damon’s facility to the warm and evocative flashbacks from Nic and Haley’s early days together. David Lanzenberg’s camera is always on the move, but the images are carefully composed with a level of elegance rarely seen in teen-oriented genre pics; Eubank started as a d.p. himself, and “The Signal” looks a good deal more expensive than its modest budget would suggest. Visual and special effects are sparingly but effectively used, and Meghan Rogers’ production design inventively conveys a sense that the characters are trapped somewhere between Earth and outer space.
Some of the narrative’s loose ends feel purposefully designed to let auds fill in the gaps, but others (including a strange detour into an experiment involving a cow and “24” actress Sarah Clarke popping up in an unbilled, dialogue-free cameo) suggest key scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. The actors aren’t asked to do any real heavy lifting here, though Fishburne perhaps telegraphs his character’s true intentions a bit too heavily, and the appealing Cooke’s token femme role remains almost laughably underwritten. Aussie native Thwaites is a sturdy enough leading man and potential heartthrob in the making; the pic’s fortunes could improve if his star rises after upcoming releases “Oculus,” “Maleficent” and “The Giver.”