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posted: 6/12/2014 6:00 AM

'Signal' a sci-fi thriller big on style, short on sense

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  • Nic (Brenton Thwaites) can't figure out why he's being kept captive in a secret government bunker in "The Signal."

    Nic (Brenton Thwaites) can't figure out why he's being kept captive in a secret government bunker in "The Signal."

  • Video: "The Signal" trailer


Imagine a full-blown art house science-fiction thriller photographed with such luminous, pristine symmetry that Stanley Kubrick would love it.

Add to that a touch of a "Blair Witch Project" rip-off called "Catfish" (a trio of searchers regrets entering a strange house). Then attach a head-scratching third act that would give David Lynch a run for his comprehension.

Roughly, that would be "The Signal," William Eubank's ambitiously mounted and enragingly frustrating mystery that may, or may not, have anything to do with the EBE (extra-terrestrial biological entity) referred to in the script.

During the 1950s, the three main characters in "The Signal" would have been football players and a cheerleader out on a lark before running into trouble.

Now, they're closer to the nerdy group from "The Big Bang Theory" without the laugh track.

Nic ("Oculus" and "Malificent" actor Brenton Thwaites), suffering from the early stages of M.S., reluctantly helps his doe-eyed girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) move across the country with his best pal Jonah (Beau Knapp).

Then they get the signal.

Taunting computer messages from a sender named "Nomad" bug computer experts Nic and Jonah so much, they decide to track the signal's source, just a few miles away. With a miffed Haley, they arrive at a deserted shack in the desert.

Here is when Nic whips out his video camera to give us the "Blair Witch" vibe, which works quite well when he hears Haley screaming from the car and rushes to help.

Nic wakes up to find Haley in a coma, Jonah missing and himself restrained to a chair across a table from Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), a mysterious government interrogator embedded in a HAZMAT suit.

"What I'm about to tell you, Nic, you may find disturbing," Damon says in deliberately measured, calming tones.

Except that he doesn't tell Nic anything. Not really.

Why won't Haley wake up and talk to him? Why can Jonah only contact him as a disembodied voice through an air vent late at night? Why does Nic keep bleeding?

And what's up with the strange lady (Lin Shaye) Nic meets on a deserted road, a woman who talks in sing-songy rondos of nonsense?

The longer that "The Signal" keeps teasing us with the mystery, keeps drawing it out, piling questions upon questions, we're hooked.

The moment the movie begins to unravel its narrative ball of yarn, Eubank reveals his probable desire to be the Terrence Malick of science-fiction by overdosing on style at the expense of an understandable plot.

With fields with high grass undulating in exquisite slow motion already claimed as a visual signature, Eubanks goes for eye-arresting slow motion flashbacks of summer carnival rides and Nic running cross-country track through some of the most spectacularly framed and visually realized landscapes to be seen in filmdom.

Photographed by David Lanzenberg (although the director is a former cinematographer as well), "The Signal" shimmers with an elegant style that makes the production look like a million bucks, or closer to $10 million bucks.

Lanzenberg's ultratight close-ups, mostly of Thwaites' scabby face with soulful eyes, fill a super-wide screen format with economy and power.

Thwaites is an actor to watch in launch mode, for he easily anchors a flighty sci-fi thriller, one both provocative and challenging, but utterly without obligation to satisfy our piqued curiosity.

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