24 Lies a Second: Strange Atmospherics

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Strange Atmospherics

Once more unto the Phoenix in Jericho for a visit to their Discover Tuesdays strand, which happens on (duh) a Tuesday, hence no need to fear the blight of allocated seating. Discover Tuesdays is a pretty eclectic catch-all receptacle for any films Picturehouse have snagged the rights to but which they think are too fringe, minority, or experimental to warrant a proper run across the week – and when you consider their major release this week was a searing behind-the-scenes documentary about couture, you may get some idea of just how fringe, minority, and experimental some of the Discover Tuesdays films turn out to be (the last one I went to was, I believe, a true-life courtroom-drama documentary about dinosaur fossil smuggling).

It's a tough call as to whether William Eubank's The Signal is more or less out there than that, for all that this initially looks like a fairly conventional indie film drama. This is the point at which I have to go on the record and say that this review may end up being rather shorter than most, or at least continue an even higher than usual ratio of pointless waffle to useful information. I really wanted the experience of being totally surprised by a film, and so, beyond knowing the name of one of the actors and a few vague clues as to the genre of the thing, I deliberately avoided all knowledge of what was to come. I think this added to my enjoyment of the movie immensely – and having spent what feels like about four months watching, analysing, and discussing just the trailers for Age of Ultron, I can't help thinking this would be true of a lot of other films, too. I don't want to spoil The Signal any more than I have to, so henceforth I shall be very circumspect about the plot and so on.

Brenton Thwaites plays Nic, a young computer science student engaged on a roadtrip across America with his buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp) and girlfriend Haley (latterday Hammer starlet Olivia Cooke). Haley is moving to the West Coast and they, in theory, are helping her with her stuff, but there are various ulterior things going on too. Nic and Jonah are being plagued by a remarkably skilled hacker calling himself Nomad, and it may just be that the journey will allow them the opportunity to run their nemesis to ground and expose his true identity. Perhaps more seriously, strains are developing in Nic and Haley's relationship – Nic is suffering from some kind of progressive medical condition (muscular dystrophy, apparently, though this isn't made particularly explicit on screen) which will eventually put him in a wheelchair, and he is anticipating the moment when she breaks up with him on account of this. All this remains unresolved as they near their destination, which also happens to be close to the location they have tracked Nomad's signal to: a remote shack in the Nevada desert, which initially seems to be deserted, but...

And here I must cease and desist, for the startling turns and twists the plot takes from this point on are really best experienced in a state of complete innocence. Well, I suppose I have to issue a few vague generalities, just for form's sake and so people have a very rough idea of the tenor of proceedings: prior to this point, The Signal has looked not unlike an indie-ish drama about the lives of young people, albeit one with an impressively high level of computer science literacy. It proves to be very much otherwise, as Laurence Fishburne appears as an enigmatic figure in a hazmat suit, and the film reveals itself to be... well, from a very different genre.

Some of the advance publicity that I did see for The Signal compared it to a Shane Carruth movie, specifically the mesmerically cryptic Upstream Color, and I can sort of see where this comparison is coming from. However, it doesn't quite manage to consistently strike an authentically Carruthian tone, because most of the time I felt I had a pretty good idea of what was going on from one scene from the next, at least superficially (I stress, most of the time: there's one sequence with a cow and what seems to be an invisible monster I couldn't quite figure out). This isn't to say that the deeper workings of the plot are always apparent: in fact, as the film progresses, it almost gives the impression that it's unravelling into spectacular visual and narrative incoherence, to increasingly stunning (but baffling) effect.


And yet, and yet. The Signal is ultimately an SF movie, and – perhaps – the most truly SF movie I've seen in a long time. Defining what SF actually is is one of those proverbially difficult things, but one suggestion which stuck with me is that it deals with the idea of conceptual breakthrough: the revelation and consequences of discovering that Things Are Not As We Thought They Were. The makers of The Signal have suggested that it is ultimately a drama about the conflict between logic and emotion, and to some extent this is apparent when watching the film – but my overriding impression when watching it was of a dizzying series of narrative transitions, not always tremendously coherent, it's true, but with a remarkable cumulative impact.

Whatever you make of the conception and plotting of the film, it features impressive performances from the key performers – Laurence Fishburne is on particularly fine form – and it is visually highly impressive. Possibly The Signal is ultimately just a triumph of style over substance – and simply on the basis of the film's technical virtuosity I can see William Eubank having talks with a couple of big-name movie-making outfits in the very near future – but it's still a fascinating piece of storytelling legerdemaine with its own slightly unearthly sense of style about it. I got a very real kick out of watching it, and I'm very curious to see what Eubank does next.

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