Nice Place to Visit, by David Bax
If you’re confused by the fact that I’m posting a new review of a genre movie with the same name as a genre movie from 2007, you’re not alone. I was a bit thrown off myself. As it turns out, though, it’s fitting that the title of William Eubank’s The Signal be lifted, given that the film itself is a familiar, if entertaining, pastiche of existing tropes.
Three friends, Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), are driving across the country, delivering Haley to her new college. The trio is made up of computer geeks of some sort and, all the while, they’re being pestered by Nomad, a seemingly very arrogant hacker. When they believe they’ve pinned down the location of the irritating hotshot, they take a detour to his supposed location. They find an empty house with remnants of computer hardware. Then everything goes haywire and, when Nic wakes up, he has no idea where he is or what’s becomes of his friends.
Eubank employs an admirably patient approach to the film’s first act (that would be the pre-haywire portion), setting up the relationships among the three leads with a mix of both subtle and broad strokes, aided by relaxed performances from the cast. Once we’ve gotten to know these kids, though, it’s all the more disappointing when they start following the prescribed path of “don’t go in there” horror movie stupidity.
Luckily, we the audience don’t have to spend too long urging our protagonists not to go through doors or down stairs. When the shift from horror to science fiction comes, it’s exhilaratingly jarring. The quick transition from a dark and remote rural setting to one of white hospital bed sheets and bright, fluorescent corridors opens the film up to a flood of new possibilities. It’s only the first of many times Eubank will lead us right up to feeling that we understand the world into which we’re dropped and then suddenly explode the limits. For all the film’s other faults, this is a trick that works every time Eubank employs it and it’s what keeps the movie fun even as our suspicion of its hollowness grows deeper.
Director of photography David Lanzenberg delivers the muted, warm colors reminiscent of an Instagram filter and relied upon by quasi-indie filmmakers to lend their works an unearned air of worn-in realism. For an example, see Lanzenberg’s work on the nettling, risible Celeste & Jesse Forever. However, in much the same way that gimmick makes sloppy cellphone photos looks more professional, so here does it make the science fiction elements (such as possibly extraterrestrial robotics) blend naturally into the scenery.
In addition to plot surprises, Eubank has one more secret weapon, the great Laurence Fishburne, who plays Damon, the man (Doctor? Scientist?) whose interrogations Nic faces upon awakening in some sort of medical facility. Fishburne is clearly having fun, underplaying the friend-or-foe mystery of the role and instead going for humor in an inspired way. Damon’s relieved declaration, “It’s just blood!” is a darkly hilarious moment that provides much needed relief from the smothering tension and opacity. Clearly, we’ve been missing out on the man’s comedic skills.
While it’s heartening that Eubank fills the film with comedic and character-centric moments like that to balance out his what-the-fuck pageantry, neither the relationships nor the science fiction bear much depth. When The Signal isn’t patterning itself on The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix, 2001 or Lost, it’s borrowing gravitas from the early works of David Gordon Green. For a movie full of surprises in its narrative, there are none beneath its surface.