Eugene Weekly : Movies : 3.6.08


Strange Transmissions
Bleak and brutal sci-fi horror flick falls flat

THE SIGNAL: Written, edited and directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry. Music, Ben Lovett. Starring Justin Welborn, A.J. Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Scott Poythress, Sahr Ngaujah, Cheri Christian and Chad McKnight. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. R. 99 minutes.

In a city called Terminus (an old name for Atlanta), in an indistinct time, a strange, creepy transmission has taken over the airwaves. Those who see it on TV, hear it over the radio or catch it on their cellphones are changed; their baser instincts take over, their darkest fears and issues rise to the surface, their perceptions shift. They get really pissed off. And then, mostly, they kill each other.

Mya (Anessa Ramsey) in The Signal

The Signal was written, directed, edited and otherwise created by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, three Atlanta fellows whose feature film came out of an experimental project in which each director would shoot part of a story, then hand it to another. Eventually their stories gelled into this film, which is arranged in three “transmissions,” one in the hands of each of the three directors. Running through all three segments of the film are the stories of Mya (Anessa Ramsey), her lover Ben (Justin Welborn) — with whom she wants to escape Terminus — and her jealous husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen), who gets “the crazy” pretty badly. In the second act, the film segues into black humor that, while it may be meant to let us see what it’s like to be “signalized,” feels like a weak, unfunny trip into Shaun of the Dead territory — albeit more drenched in fake blood. The more the characters are affected by the signal, the more their realities twist — and the nastier the violence gets. It’s both ugly and boring watching Lewis torture a woman his disjointed mind suspects knows something she’s not telling him. What no one knows (and almost no one seems to care about) is where the signal is coming from or why, though Clark (Scott Poythress) rambles a few theories now and then, and Ben is pretty sure he’s figured out how to get around its effects. Maybe.

But revealing the source of the signal would change the direction of The Signal, which is mostly — and messily — interested in the breakdown that occurs when everyone’s reality is different, when people stop being (or knowing) who they are — and, of course, when the source of all this disconnection is electronic; add this film to the growing list of those involving the dangers of technology in one way or another. The film’s strength is its cast, particularly the intense Bowen and casually appealing Welborn. But gaps in logic, distracting visual continuity issues, too-familiar images (the empty cityscapes in the third act seem, most immediately, straight out of 28 Days Later) and a reliance on endless scenes of the maddened folks going at each other make The Signal aggravating to watch. Some filmgoers may have more patience for films where characters walk obliviously into danger or get their heads bashed in (with baseball bats, with pesticide tanks) only to rise again. But by the time The Signal arrives at its conclusion — in a terminal to which Mya apparently walked alone, a tiny blonde in a city of murderers — the film can’t even evoke interest in Ben’s manipulation of the signal’s effects. Instead, it merely elicits indifference.

The Signal opens Friday, March 7, at the Bijou.