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‘The Signal’: Horror becomes sci-fi becomes silliness

A road trip lands computer genius Nic (BrentThwaites) an underground lab he cannot leave “The Signal.” | FOCUS FEATURES

A road trip lands computer genius Nic (Brenton Thwaites) in an underground lab he cannot leave in “The Signal.” | FOCUS FEATURES

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‘THE SIGNAL’ ★★1⁄2

Nic Brenton Thwaites

Haley Olivia Cooke

Jonah Beau Knapp

Damon Laurence Fishburne

Focus Features presents a film directed by William Eubank and written by Eubank, Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic elements, violence and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: July 14, 2014 6:12AM

Roughly three-fourths of the way through “The Signal,” an impressively stylish yet almost aggressively baffling sci-fi thriller, the young hero takes time to stop, ponder and say what everyone in the audience probably will be thinking: “This doesn’t make any sense.”

Poor kid. He doesn’t realize the situation is perfectly logical compared to what’s coming.

It’s pretty clear from the beginning that “The Signal” is one of those movies that’s working its way toward a Mind-Blowing Twist Ending. It works so hard to keep us guessing about the most fundamental elements of the story — not only about the characters and their circumstances but the sort of genre we’re dealing with. Which would be fine if the big reveal, when it finally comes, didn’t make everything that’s happened seem ridiculous and basically pointless.

The film begins with Nic (Brenton Thwaites, the irrelevant Prince Charming in “Maleficent”) and his best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) escorting Nic’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) on a cross-country trip. Nic and Jonah and presumably Haley, though she’s mainly there to look pretty and be endangered, are computer geniuses from MIT. Nic walks on crutches, by the way, though we’re never told why, and frequently flashes back to his past as a competitive runner. And he and Jonah are obsessed with discovering the whereabouts of a mysterious hacker named NOMAD, who has been taunting them with his seemingly impossible skills.

After some initial relationship drama, Nic and Jonah pinpoint NOMAD’s location as a spooky shack in the desert and the film shifts, quite effectively, to horror-movie mode as they explore it. What follows are a big surprise, a loss of consciousness and another stylistic shift, as Nic finds himself a prisoner in a gleaming white underground lab, unable to feel his legs and subjected to questioning by the impassively menacing Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne in a contamination suit). The doc wants to know if Nic’s from Earth and if he’s closely encountered any Extra-terrestrial Biological Entities lately.

We’re in sci-fi territory from that point on, and pretty well hooked while we’re trying to figure out what’s next, with co-writer-director William Eubank cultivating an effective atmosphere of creeping paranoia. Strangeness for the sake of strangeness sets in, the story starts to meander and you start asking yourself if the whole thing might be a nasty dream. And that’s before Nic and Haley find themselves topside and on the run for a spectacularly unlikely action-movie climax.

Spectacularly unlikely with an emphasis on the spectacular. While it’s hard to make sense of the narrative developments in “The Signal,” it must be said that it’s always visually compelling. And that some of the standout sequences (including, yes, the Mind-Blowing Twist Ending) suggest that Eubank could have a terrific future as a director. As a screenwriter, though, maybe not so much.

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