If anyone had questions about whether director (and former cinematographer) William Eubank knows how to put a shot together, The Signal will answer them. The opening minutes of winsome undergrads on a cross-country road trip gains impressive grandeur under the Southwestern sky, and every flashback shot bursts with saturated forest greens. The moody visuals even lend fresh tension to the obligatory hacker thrills, flashlit horror-movie investigations and sterile hospitals in which, unfortunately, the plot begins.
The script (by Eubank, Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio) doesn’t lack enthusiasm and has some success while our MIT hero pits his smarts against the elusive agency holding him captive. Low-tech espionage tension gets help from a focused performance by Brenton Thwaites as Nick, the intense Beau Knapp as Jonah, and a quietly unsettling turn by Laurence Fishburne as the agent testing Nick. We’ll pretend Olivia Cooke as Nick’s girlfriend Hayley is magnificent commentary on the trope of the underwritten-girlfriend who has to be—often literally—dragged through the story by our hero, because the alternative would be a character of staggering flimsiness even for a movie rife with archetypes.
From there, the plot only thickens. There are still nicely-eerie vignettes even once the gears start grinding, but what begins as a compelling round of mind games ends up underscoring that sometimes the thrill of the journey usurps the joy at one’s arrival. However, this is a movie in which spoilers would abound with any further explanation, so just know that The Signal begins with gorgeously-framed vistas and climbs slowly to nonsensical heights. But it coasts deservedly on style and atmosphere for its first half, and perhaps the stack of big reveals in the last act is just a layer cake of homage in a thriller that wants to be all twists to all people.