Promising indie sci-fi with Laurence Fishburne and Brenton Thwaites
US indie sci-fi has been booming since Colin Trevorrow went from directing Safety Not Guaranteed to being handed the reins of Jurassic World. William Eubank’s The Signal might seem like just another entry for the ongoing pile of lo-fi, stargazing fare, but a few unexpected virtues help it resonate more than most.
Brenton Thwaites plays Nic Eastman, a student at Boston's MIT, who ropes a couple of fellow scholars into investigating a mysterious signal they receive during a recreational drive to California. Nic’s relationship with girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) is under stress, mainly due to his declining health as a muscular dystrophy sufferer, but when their investigations of a remote Nevada farmhouse end abruptly, he wakes up in a sinister hospital under the care of Dr Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), and it becomes clear that the students have unwittingly offered themselves up as guinea pigs for a form of alien technology.
The Signal is unashamedly literal in its sci-fi premise and, although artfully shot by David Lanzenberg, Eubank’s film falls short of the Upstream Colour intellectual benchmark, and instead plays like an extended Twilight Zone episode. But where it really scores is in its performances, with Thwaites making a decent fist of an unexpectedly three-dimensional role and veteran Fishburne acting as a striking nemesis. And there’s an ingenious cameo from Lin Shaye (the old lady spook detector from Insidious) that's all the better for it not being explained until the finale.
The Signal marks out Eubank as having the cheek to mash-up elements of District 9, Chronicle and The Blair Witch Project into something palatable for genre fans. Furthermore, the sparing use of effects, combined with a disconcertingly off-kilter atmosphere means that this is more than just a promo reel from a hot new talent.
Selected release from Fri 27 Mar.