Director William Eubank's "The Signal" is structured like an M. Night Shyamalan movie — and not one of his good ones.
This tale of three college students who see their road trip to find a hacker turn into a nightmare is 90 minutes of setup for a big reveal that comes in the last moments. Such a "Twilight Zone" approach works only if the ending is such an unpredictable twist that there is no way to guess what will happen.
This one's painfully obvious.
After a prologue that looks like outtakes from a "Blair Witch" sequel, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) wakes up in a sterile isolation unit. He's been separated from his traveling buddies, Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp). The only connection he has outside the room is Damon (Laurence Fishburne), a soft-spoken man who's never seen outside his hazardous material suit.
The bulk of the movie is Nic trying to find out what has happened and Damon refusing to tell him. There's a moment when the action picks up, but it ends up being a rush to the lackluster ending.
The overall structure of "The Signal" has problems because it looks like three small films fused together by a weak story line. Eubank's directing style jumps around as he goes from shaky hand-held shots to sequences filmed with so little movement they play as being very cold.
It doesn't help that selling the story depends on the abilities of an unknown cast. Thwaites is competent but never shows the kind of fire and frustration that would come from such a situation. And the presence that Fishburne can bring to a role is diminished because he's confined to that bulky suit.
All of this could have been forgiven if the film didn't end with such a thud. It's the same kind of problem Shyamalan faced with "The Village" and "The Happening" — the set-up is interesting, but the payoff is disappointing. One reason is that audiences are very smart having seen so many TV shows and movies that have surprise endings. It takes some very clever writing to catch the viewer off guard, and that isn't the case here.
The small-budget film does get points for special effects, particularly the transformation that Nic goes through. And the big chase scene creates some needed tension. But it comes too late as Eubank put all his money on the ending of "The Signal" and by the time he gets to the final scenes, the movie has run out of steam.
"The Signal," rated PG-13 for language, violence. Stars Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne. Directed by William Eubank. Running time: 95 minutes. Grade: C-