Daring in Digital

The Signal is an interesting bit of low-budget filmmaking, but stalls when the story runs out

Film is dead. Not cinema or the movies, but actually shooting the end product on endless spools of celluloid has been buried for good. This is hardly a surprise development; digital video has been making inroads since Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. But if a $4 million budget and an unknown director can make a motion picture so visually elegant as The Signal, you can just throw in the towel on film.

Digital video has been common in sci-fi for years now, and obviously animated movies are almost always made on computers now. But The Signal — on a budget so small they had to borrow equipment from other productions shooting in the same location -- is one of the first really beautiful-looking movies that gets that great cinematic depth of field and richness in color that most video productions lack.

The story is rather intriguing, too, at least before writer-director William Eubank hits the fork in the road. Its first hour rolls slowly and effectively, with three college students driving cross-country from MIT to Cal Tech. In recent weeks, they've been harassed by a hacker known as Nomad and he's popped up again, going from hacking MIT databases to the students' personal computers. So Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) geolocate the hacker to Middle-of-Nowhere, Nevada and decide to pay him a visit. How Jonah, the quintessential coder geek, and Nick, who can only get around with the assistance of crutches, hoped to intimidate the anonymous hacker is anyone's guess.

But they don't find the Nomad. Instead, they see Nick's girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), flung into the sky by forces unseen and then everything goes black.

When he wakes up again, Nick is being prodded by doctors or scientists in hazmat suits. Then he's answering questions from a cold-mannered guy named Damon (Laurence Fishburne). But what is this odd facility, which looks like they just thoroughly scrubbed the hospital from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

This is where the narrative starts to get away from Eubank a little bit. What kind of movie does he want to make, something in the anti-government/black helicopter vein, some sort of weird alien thing, a possible time travel movie? The tension works throughout, largely due to Fishburne's calculating manner and Thwaites' youthful determination, but long stretches pass without us learning very much.

The culprit is just not having 90 minutes of story to tell. This is more like a 50-minute movie with nearly twice as much time to fill. That explains the methodical first hour, and the diagnosis becomes really clear with how little actually develops (instead of stuff that just happens) in the last, more accelerated 30 minutes.

That is largely forgivable, however, because this is such a magnificently photographed movie. The sci-fi stuff looks cool, which is a testament of its own to how far digital video capabilities have advanced for homemade productions like this, but the cinematography really comes to life in the smaller scenes. When Nick has a flashback to or a dream about simpler times with Haley, or when Haley looks wistfully across the vast Nevada desert, or when Nick's crutch on a wooden step sends tiny amounts of dust into the air, you truly get the achievement here.

So much of the film's emotion comes from a number of super slow motion scenes, impossible with film cameras limited to capturing 24 frames a second, and it really is opening up a new and more powerful language for directors and actors. It gives The Signal more for us to process and brings a pretty high-concept science fiction thriller down to a more relatable level.

So film is dead. But long live films.

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