City Paper is not for tourists
The brain-scrambling static that invades TV sets, radios, and telephones in The Signal is so powerful it makes people homicidal. You, too, may be feeling violently angry by the time the movie ends. Did writer-directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry—who passed the baton to individually helm the film’s beginning, middle, and end—sprinkle their reels with the script’s airwave-riding rage-ohol? Nope: The Signal just sucks. It’s not the gimmick of patchwork filmmaking that’s the problem, exactly; the transitions are smooth enough. It’s the story itself that gets wearying. The movie is divided into three chapters, or “transmissions,” that share common characters Pulp Fiction-style. Anchoring the story, which begins on New Year’s Eve in a place called Terminus, is the triangle of Mya (Anessa Ramsey), her husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen), and her lover, Ben (Justin Welborn). In the first segment, directed by Bruckner, Mya is leaving Ben’s place, contemplating his proposal that they run away together, when his TV turns itself on and her cell phone won’t work. When she gets home, nearly everyone in her building has gone batshit—couples are screaming at each other, people are being dragged down the hallway, and even Lewis starts beating the hell out of one of his friends after the game they were watching is interrupted by Poltergeist-ian snow. Bush and Gentry take over for the second and third parts, respectively, which introduce us to new characters such as Anna (Cheri Christian), a sunny, pearl-wearing accidental murderer, and tonal changes—Bush goes for black comedy before Gentry returns to just plain black. No single segment fails miserably, and each has moments of humor, tension, and originality. But overall, the movie’s a chore. The evil signal not only enrages people—and yes, the idea is exactly like that of Stephen King’s 2006 novel Cell—it makes them hallucinate, a detail the filmmakers handle so poorly you end up thinking WTF? as often as the characters. The violence is usually torture-porn brutal, with the frequency of kills increasing along with their ugliness. And, among many ridiculous scenes, the one in which someone literally jump-starts and interrogates a decapitated head summarily erases any chance you’ll take the script’s weak stab at social commentary—i.e., technology is destroying our minds—seriously.