We’ve seen this story before: Three college kids take a road trip. Two of them, handicapped Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and moody Haley (Olivia Cooke), are at a crossroads in their relationship, while the other, bespectacled nerd Jonah (Beau Knapp), is along for comic relief. It all feels irritatingly Sundance-ready, and of course 'The Signal' had a Park City premiere. What sort of life lessons will our blandly fresh-faced trio learn on their journey across the American Southwest?
But just when you think you’ve got the film’s derivative number, cowriter-director William Eubank throws some nutty wrenches into the works: a taunting computer hacker, an alien abduction and, finally, a secret government facility where Nic becomes the subject of study for hazmat-suit-clad Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne, entertainingly riffing on his wise-sage role from 'The Matrix').
The sudden detour into WTF territory piques your interest for a while. Eubank is especially adept at building tension in the film’s middle section, during which Dr. Damon cryptically interrogates Nic in windowless rooms that recall '2001'’s antiseptic interiors. Yet once we leave this claustrophobic space, things quickly fall apart, with a pileup of sub–Rod Serling narrative twists, a choppy action sequence heavy on the Michael Bay slo-mo and a sequel-ready climax that reveals the whole project as little more than a feature-length calling card.