THE SIGNAL is a janitor at MIT who spends evenings with a mop in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other, casually redoing mathematical formulas on blackboards. Except THE SIGNAL is no wunderkind. No Ivy Leaguer should be fooled, no matter how much scribbling, square roots, functions or Greek letters span the board. The whole enterprise sports an inspired foundation only to have an unnecessary committee of writers/directors brawling with each other over how to correlate it all, turning calculations into contradictory gibberish lacking unified purpose and scope, but with enough idea traffic to still broadcast a facade of intelligent design.
Split into three chapters, each third written/directed by one of the trio above, THE SIGNAL is about a transmission across all televisions, phones and radios that drives the exposed towards violence followed by madness. Transmission 1 regards an adulterating couple, Ben and Mya, who separate just prior to the first transmission. Transmission 2 takes place in the aftermath, locked onto the insanity side of things inside a house dominated with characters not relevant to the first half hour of the movie. Transmission 3 is the resolution of the events of the preceding two parts.
Before diving into why the feverish math on display is fruitless, I’d like to illustrate a little simple math of my own. At peak occupancy, there were 7 people in the audience for THE SIGNAL. By the end of the movie there were 4. I was 1, 2 more were friends I dragged along. That means, minus us, 75% of the audience had no interest in seeing this ordeal to the end. On the way out the remaining stranger declared, "That was the biggest waste of money I’ve spent at a theater in a long time." While I don’t share the exact sentiment, I could supply no response other than an apathetic, drawn out, "Yeeeeaaahhh…."
Transmission 1 is on point. The outbreak is dire and establishes a tangible plight for the denied love between Mya and Ben and spotlights Mya’s jealous husband as the sure antagonist. It features haunting shots of people staring into the schizophrenic TV signal and a not unsubstantial amount of carnage. By the time morning reaches full bloom flawed heroes are emerging from the disaster, feeding into a growing avalanche of energy that will convince the viewer that THE SIGNAL is about to crash on to top lists of horror geeks everywhere.
Transmission 2 starts to bend reality with great efficacy. Memories and perception are melded into an initially complex narrative of paranoia that shows the true potential of just how destructive exposure to the signal can be. Unfortunately, the volume of humor increases, as does the rate at which the jokes fall flat. The yield is a film that loses all but its last ounce of credibility around its halfway mark — I’m quiet surprised a pie wasn’t thrown at some point, to be honest. By the time Transmission 3 starts, there has been too much mood confusion between the first two parts. The damage is irreparable, and what continues to play out is only a means to an unqualified end.
Not only does the film lack any successful cohesion between its three parts, but the message, what little makes it through, is nulled by the film itself. THE SIGNAL, though it takes place in a fictional city called Terminus, is intended as a transparent analog to our own society. People stare mindlessly into their televisions, isolating themselves from the real world, from real humans. What is left of these broadcast addicts is a husk of humanity. The only hope to be found in the film is between Ben and Mya, whose opening dialog is literally about escaping city life and modernity to get back to "freedom". The only thing that saves Ben from insanity is the fact that he stares at TV until daylight, at which point the sun snaps him out of his trance and thus the natural world has saved the day. This is the message.
And yet THE SIGNAL, as presented to us, is a story that can only be taken in by eschewing nature and surrendering our freedom to the mindless screen once again. The very screen that the filmmakers declare as being the root of evil. While this ideological confusion is actually the least of the film’s problems (an inconsistent sound mix and droll color palette are others), it is also the most representative of its lack of firmness, of identity, of any higher logic behind the mess of math. Think of it as tearing down forest to put up a billboard against deforestation. It also doesn’t help that it feels like 30 minutes of story spread across 99 minutes of screen time.
Bruckner, Gentry and Bush slam off to a rapid start, but then THE SIGNAL gets stuck in a roundabout of wants, unable to take the exits it needs. Good on the gore, good on the crazy, just lacking the smarts to either make everything before the equal sign add up or at least hide the fact that none of it does.