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Movie Review

‘The Signal’ doesn’t connect

Laurence Fishburne, as Dr. Wallace Damon in “The Signal,” evokes Rod Serling’s foreboding.

Focus Features

Laurence Fishburne, as Dr. Wallace Damon in “The Signal,” evokes Rod Serling’s foreboding.

Nobody has matched the potent uncanniness of creepy late-’50s early-’60s TV shows such as “One Step Beyond,” “The Outer Limits,” and the granddaddy of them all, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” They would set up a banal situation and heighten a mood of unease and insanity until the ultimate devastating, usually unforeseen, revelation. A detached, ruefully ironic narrator completed the picture — none better than Serling — who poses as a voice of reason but has the effect instead of a sadistic puppeteer.

Director William Eubank and his screenwriters want to emulate these programs at their best, and Eubank has the style and intelligence to enrich the formula. But his otherwise impressive feature debut lacks a virtue of those old shows: brevity. After a half an hour, the developments grow busy rather than mysterious, the focus blurs and the kicker ending — well, I was neither surprised nor satisfied.

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But first some kudos for Eubank’s cinematic intelligence, as in the scene introducing Nic (Brenton Thwaites), a hunky, melancholy computer nerd on crutches who demonstrates to a kid in a convenience store how to thwart the crane game and grab the toy he wants. The sequence says a lot about Nic’s ingenuity and sweet nature and the crutches hint at past tragedy — which a recurring flashback further mystifies. It also establishes a key motif — a Cronenbergian merging of human and machine.

Nic and his estranged girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), along with his buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp), are driving to California when they decide to take a detour in Nevada to find the hacker who had sabotaged their servers at MIT. Before you can say “The UFO Files,” Nic wakes up in a hospital johnny in a stark white Kubrickian facility interrogated by the Hazmat-suited Dr. Damon. That Damon is played by “Matrix” vet Laurence Fishburne, who is speaking in the cadences of Rod Serling, suggests that nothing is as it seems. Including the high expectations set up by the film’s early going, Eubank had a thoughtful thriller in the works but along the way he got his signals crossed.

More coverage:

- ‘The Signal’ director likes to keep his audience off balance

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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