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"THE SIGNAL (2014)"
(2014) (Brenton Thwaites, Laurence Fishburne) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi: Three friends set out to find a computer hacker but end up in a strange biomed type facility where people in hazmat suits examine and interrogate them.
Nic (BRENTON THWAITES) and Jonah (BEAU KNAPP) are best friends who've been trying to figure out the identity of "Nomad," a computer hacker who hacked into MIT's system and wiped out various servers, including those run by the two young men. When Nomad contacts them again via text messages, they're more than determined than ever to find him, even if he seems to have the technological upper hand, what with accessing the camera on a laptop owned by Nic's girlfriend, Haley (OLIVIA COOKE).

She's moving to California for a year and Nic and Jonah are driving her there, a fortuitous turn of events as the two men trace the location of Nomad's computer to a remote part of Nevada. They arrive at night to what appears to be an abandoned home out in the desert and poke around inside, all while Haley stays in the car. Her screams bring them back out, only to see her whisked away into the night sky.

When Nic regains consciousness, he finds himself in some sort of biomed facility where everyone is wearing hazmat suits, including Dr. Wallace Damon (LAURENCE FISHBURNE) who proceeds to ask questions of Nic without informing him of where he is or what's going on. As the days pass, and noting the clockwork like behavior of the staff, Nic plots his escape with hopes of rescuing his two friends. Little is he prepared for what he's going to find, however, revelations that will forever change his life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There's the old proverb about being careful what one asks for as you might just get it, a cautionary saying essentially about knowing what you're possibly getting into before actually arriving at that metaphorical destination. One could also warn to be careful about what one is searching for, as you very well may find it and not like the results.

Such is the case for the three main characters in "The Signal," a sci-fi suspense flick that is not based on the 2007 horror film of the same name where a mysterious transmission turned ordinary residents into homicidal maniacs. Here, the title refers to things that can't fully be discussed without giving away some fairly significant spoilers, but starts with a signal of sorts, in the form of a taunting text message.

Apparently, best friends and computer geeks Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) have previously corresponded via that communication tool with someone known only as "Nomad." He/she broke into MIT's computer system and ruined the two guys servers, and thus they want to find out who the person is. Yet, while they seem like amateurs compared to what this anonymous figure can do (hack into a laptop to access the camera and feed that back to the guys and later hack into traffic cameras and show the vehicle they're driving), they think they're hot stuff when they trace the hacker's location to a remote location in Nevada.

It just so happens they're driving Nic's girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), to California and thus will be passing by. But before you can shout out, "Don't go into the seemingly abandoned house in the middle of nowhere at night with flashlights and a video camera, you idiots!" the two dudes (as they like to refer to each other) do just that, and into the creepy basement no less.

A scream from up top, a gravity-defying act one doesn't normally see, and somehow ending up unconscious moments later, our main character wakes up in a biomed type facility straight from some potentially bad sci-fi film, including men dressed in biohazard suits (the only one given any true dialogue is played by Laurence Fishburne).

No, the latter doesn't signal that this is "The Matrix IV," but some odd things are certainly afoot, and the mystery for viewers is to figure out what that is before the protagonist does the same. A little of that usually can go a long way, but maintaining such an enigma for a long stretch of time takes a masterful stroke of continually stoking one's interest without ultimately boring and/or frustrating the viewer who wants an answer.

Writer/director William Eubank -- who penned the screenplay along with fellow scribes Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio -- offers up an interesting premise and a late third act reveal that might just make M. Night "I'm Gonna Shock You at the End" Shyamalan proud. For yours truly, however, I think it works better in concept and perhaps on paper than in visualized final form.

I'll admit I was intrigued for a while following Nic showing up in the facility where thing seem more than a bit askew. After a while, though, my questions about and growing impatience regarding the eventual explanation behind all of that, not to mention some at-the-time incongruous behavior, ultimately took me far too many times out of the proceedings, a cardinal sin in moviemaking where viewers shouldn't be shifting in their seats or wondering if their parking meter was going to expire.

It doesn't help that we don't know much about any of these characters or that some early sympathetic elements -- mostly revolving around Nic needing forearm braces to get around due to some apparently degenerative condition he believes could and probably should end his relationship with Haley -- dry up once the weirdness ensues. Yes, there are some later flashback moments of him jogging through the woods and running into a dead-end path of a river crossing, enjoying a ride at the fair and so on, but that's not enough to make us care about the characters and their plight.

For me, all of that, along with the big reveal, was an eventual signal to recall how the original "Matrix" flick did something somewhat similar, but in a far more involving and thrilling fashion. While that sci-fi classic had me willingly wanting to go down its take on the old Wonderland rabbit hole, I couldn't wait to pass through the exit doors of the theater showing "The Signal." Not horrible but frustrating in its execution and wasted potential, the film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 11, 2014 / Posted June 13, 2014

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