“The Signal” starts off as an alien version of “Blair Witch Project” and then drifts off into cold plotlessness. But for a while, a little while, it seems like it just might be interesting.
Three young people are on a road trip through the Southwest. Nic (Brenton Thwaites) walks with two crutches, but at first no one alludes to it, so that you think a disability is being woven seamlessly into the story. Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), is about to enter a yearlong academic program, and their funny pal (Beau Knapp) is along for the ride. Sitting in the back seat, he notices that a hacker is tracking them by computer, and so the guys trace the signal, find the hacker’s location and start toying with the idea of paying this hacker a visit.
But nobody is serious about this until tensions deepen between the couple. Turns out, Nic has a debilitating illness, and he wants to break up with Haley before she rejects him. This scene is well-played and would seem to be the substance and heart of the film, but in fact it’s more on the order of a feint, just details until the real plot kicks in.
Impulsively, the guys find the hacker’s house – in the middle of nowhere, of course – and, filming it all with hand-held cameras – they walk around a bit until something awful happens and everything changes.
When Nic wakes up in a hospital, he doesn’t know where he is or how he got there, only that a man in a contamination suit (Laurence Fishburne) won’t tell him anything but keeps asking questions. Nic isn’t the only one who doesn’t know anything. Neither does the audience, but we have an advantage: We can guess. In fact, we can guess within five minutes, but the movie goes on for another hour, spinning its wheels and giving variations on the same scene, while fruitlessly trying to build audience interest by denying information.
The walls are white. The suits are white. All is cold and unbending, and the outdoors holds little promise. And there the movie stays, locked into some idea that its central mystery is so compelling – and the fate of the characters such a matter of intense concern – that viewers will be able to keep their eyes open as nothing happens and keeps not happening.
What “The Signal” really needed was to turn over its cards in 30 minutes or less and then find a third act.