Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Signal (2014): Ideas Spurting Everywhere

No, this is not a Beekeeper's outfit. There are no
bees in this movie.
The Signal (2014)
dir: William Eubank

SIFF 2014 Film #7

William Eubank's 2011 film Love was a low-fi indie film that was a semi-hit on the festival circuits due to it's amazing visuals, but was ultimately hindered by its content, or lack thereof. The visuals were frequently stunning and gorgeous, especially on the gigantic screen at the Egyptian theater (a single house palace in Seattle), but it didn't hold up in terms of being bout anything or anything substantial. Still, it was an ambitious and accomplished first feature for a director in search of an idea.

Eubank's latest feature is The Signal, an ambitious film for which he ended up using 8x the budget of Love, costing about $4mil. The visuals are frequently stunning, again, this time delving into horror tropes then Gerry tropes and also the twee style of fuzzy focus and narrow depth of field close ups. It's the very in style right now. Eubanks' style is great in the moments, but as a whole it falls apart.

The Signal follows three geeks from MIT - Nic, Haley, and Jonah - as they move Haley to go to school at CalTech. Nic has a degenerative disease which has caused him to lose strength in his legs. No reason is given, just that he'll be continually crippled and eventually die. He is dating Haley, but breaks up with her rather early in the film.

There is also a plot about MIT being hacked by an outside hacker NOMAD, taking down servers, but the blame is laid upon Nic and Jonah. On the road, NOMAD reestablishes contact with them using the line Are You Agitated, and hacks into Haley's computer. They track the hack to an address in Arizona, and they find an abandoned house when all hell breaks loose.

I put the essentials of The Signal first because to discuss The Signal is to spoil The Signal. On the other hand, The Signal needs some serious unpacking that I'm telling you now that there are spoilers going forward. So, SPOILERS AHEAD, you've been warned, etc etc etc.

When Nic and Jonah are exploring an abandoned house in the middle of the night, one wonders why they didn't just wait until daylight. Other than, it's creepier this way. And, when the boys explore the house, you wonder why they're exploring late at night, and why they split up, and why they leave Haley in the car. When they hear Haley scream, they know something is up, and then...bam, she flies into the air and the screen goes black.

The rest of the movie follows Nic as he wakes up in a facility with no windows that seems like a government experiment. He's strapped in a wheelchair, and is asked strange questions like "What planet are you from" by Laurence Fishburne in a hazmat suit. The movie seems to be implying that Nic was abducted by space aliens, and then sent back to Earth.

He discovers that he has new mechanical legs, and has to learn how to walk with them. He discovers that Haley is in a coma. He grabs her and escapes, to find that he's in a bunker that was miles below the surface of a desert. He and Haley run into Jonah, who now has super arms, and they try to make their way out of what they believe to be Area 51, but in the final twist discovers that they are actually on a gigantic alien spaceship on a floor that has been designed to test them.

Eubank crams so many ideas into one film that nothing is developed. Is it a story about love and dealing with your own rejection? Not really...that story line is abandoned in the first act and barely pops up in the third. Is it a story about determination and willpower? Kind of, but mainly with the help of super limbs. Is it a superhero origin story? Kind of, but he doesn't do anything super with it. Is it a space alien story? Not really, because that's dropped for the most part.

The Signal is so ADD in it's intentions - it's Catfish, no it's Fire in the Sky, no it's Area 51, no it's a government superhero origin, no it's actually an alien film - that it never develops anything to any extent. The only idea that he develops is self preservation and will power. But, that's even kind of a pussy theme for this strange of a movie.

A really REALLY bad thing about The Signal is that the girl isn't given any superpowers. She has a chip of the material used to make the boys' limbs in her back, but she doesn't get to do anything with it. She just becomes The Princess in the Castle. Which is a completely lousy trope. They have a great female character, and she is reduced to being a trophy. At the Q&A, Eubank was called on it, and he sort of evaded saying "She COULD have super powers...maybe in the DVD Extras." Which...really?

Another is that Eubank hasn't really thought up the intentions of the aliens. Why abduct somebody and give them super powers, if you're just going to kill them? They give Jonah super arms, but they kill him in a big shootoff. Which...why?! Why abduct somebody, give them a power, then kill them? I guess to test them, but really? And, the intents of the aliens is never really discovered. Why test humans? Why develop human technology at all?

In any event, the individual scenes in The Signal are fantastic. When it is Catfish, it's amazingly moody, and the burn is perfect. When the movie is the government testing facility, Eubank is on point with having witty and direct dialogue, and creating intrigue both visually and with subject. When it's Area 51, or a superhero origin story, it's surprisingly good at all those too. But, it adds up to jack shit in the end. Even more than Love, the sum of the parts do not add up to the whole. That is the ultimate disappointment.

And, as a note to Eubank...if you're going to make a semi-decent female...fucking USE HER. Don't just make her out to be a trophy to be rescued. God fucking dammit, I'm so sick of that. She literally does nothing..and...ugh!!! So wrong.

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