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Two movies have opened that seem to have never heard of the rule that today your screenplay must begin with a grabber scene, it simply has to. You know, something that happens in the first ten pages that attacks the face and thrusts its whatever it was down your throat like that creature in Alien?
Instead the filmmakers seem to feel that the slow build, the taking the time to create context for the characters and the situation, the use of an approach that invites us along for the ride rather than assaults us, is the more effective way to go. Wow, what a concept.
In one, The Signal, a young man who gets around on Lofstrand crutches instructs a pre-teen how to use one of those claw machines to get what he wants. In the other, Night Moves, two acquaintances stare at a dam and the lake it’s created. They barely speak and when they do, you can hardly understand anything they say.
Neither of these openings involve people running for their lives; people getting killed in over the top violent ways; or a shocking confrontation that is a dream, or flashback, or flashforward. And, in fact, not only do neither of them need it, both are much better films than many others that do.
The Signal is in line with a number of recent sci-fi films that are more contained, have a lower budget, are more concerned with ideas, story and characters than special effects (like Upstream Color, Monsters, Time Crimes, Safety Not Guaranteed, Another Earth) than many higher budgeted studio films (like Edge of Tomorrow, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Godzilla, and Pacific Rim).
And even with all its issues, it’s also more successful and more interesting and more entertaining than the blockbusters aforementioned.
The basic premise is that three friends, Nic (the young man with the crutches) and his BFF Jonah, are driving Haley (Nic’s girlfriend, maybe, maybe not for long, it’s sort of up in the air, you know how these young kids are) on her move to California.
Before the movie started, Nic and Jonah had been in contact with Nomad, a mysterious super hacker who got into the computers at MIT. Now curious for curiosity’s sake, as computer nerds (pardon the ethnic slur) have a wont to be, and because Nomad has started to hack into their equipment, they decide to pay him a visit, which is somewhere out in the middle of nowhere where, in their turn, mysterious hackers are wont to be in movies like this.
Now, why the three decide to visit Nomad’s hideaway in the darkest of darkest night rather than wait for the brightest of bright daylight, especially when their investigation leads them to a rather unnerving broken down shack standing all solitary off a dirt road in a dessert, is a bit beyond me.
But in the course of looking the place over, Haley seems to be suddenly spirited off into space and Nic loses consciousness, only to wake up in some sort of high tech, high security lab where everybody wears hazmat suits for fear Nic might be infected by something, dun, dun, dun…alien.
The head of this set of hazmatters is Damon, played by Laurence Fishburne. He is quite the unnerving presence mainly because he eschews the richly round and deep tones of God that Morgen Freeman might use, and instead employs the flat, gentle tone of HAL, or even worse, that annoying guy who tells you that you’ve got mail.
He’s calm. He’s very calm. He’s too calm. And the calmer he is, the more unnerving the situation becomes.
The story then becomes Nic’s attempt to understand what is happening to him as well as escaping his new prison and finding out what happened to his friends.
But nothing he discovers prepares him for the discovery that…well, let’s just say that when it happened all I could hear in my head was Ronald Reagan’s line from Kings Row, “Where’s the rest of me”.
Though the suspense never slows and the plot never loses interest, the film does hit a few problem spots around about now. For example, Nic’s bionic man routine feels a bit cheesy, especially at the flaming finale.
And then there’s that big climactic surprise that at first shocks, then puzzles. I mean, the immediate impression is that it’s, well, really neat, and I mean really, really neat. And you think all your questions have been answered.
Until you start thinking about it.
And you slowly realize that this final revelation doesn’t match what has happened before. It doesn’t really explain why Nic and the others were targeted for abduction. And it doesn’t tell us what their abductors hoped to achieve once they had Nic, Haley and Jonah in captivity.
The movie is also filled with numerous flashbacks of a pre-crutched Nic that also don’t seem to do anything to enlighten anything.
And the movie becomes one of those which had some great ideas, but feels like no one really could quite figure out how to bring it all together and resolve it all.
Still, it’s a pretty neat film.
The screenplay is by Carlyle Eubank, William Eubank and David Frigerio. The direction is by William Eubank. Though the screenplay is a bit unsteady here and there, Eubank has a nice visual eye and has a knack for using slo-mo well.
Nic is played by Brenton Thwaites who played the bland, uninteresting Prince Philip in Maleficent. He has a lot more personality here. Hazel is played by Olivia Cooke and Jonah by Beau Knapp. All three have a nice rapport and create a very believable relationship.
Stepford voiced Fishburne steals the show.
Night Moves (which shouldn’t be confused with the underrated and should not be missed 1975 film noir starring Gene Hackman in the same way that The Signal shouldn’t be confused with the clever and intriguing 2007 sci-fi film starring no one you’ve ever heard of) also has three friends at the center, Josh, Dena and Harmon.
Well, that may be exaggerating it a bit. Acquaintances is probably a more accurate description since none of them seem to really like each other all that much. And to such an extent that whenever they do occasionally act nicely toward each other, one is kind of shocked.
And yes, they are also a pretty dour group overall, walking around under overcast skies with frowns on their faces, filling the void with loud silences.
The three are eco-terrorists and they are meeting to blow up a dam. And they do. But their actions have unforeseen circumstances when the flooding that results ends up killing someone. And now the three have to figure out what to do, especially when one starts developing a guilty conscious.
Night Moves is written by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, who also directed. The two also collaborated on other films together like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and most impressively, Meek’s Cutoff.
The two have created a riveting little film that slowly pulls you in as the suspense builds around you without you knowing it (like that story about the frog being boiled alive, but so gradually he doesn’t realize it is happening). Some might consider this sort of pacing to be glacial. Others, like moi, think of it as deliberate, leisurely and unhurried…and very, very, very effective.
Night Moves starts out as a movie revolving around a social problem (the ecology), but quickly realizes that in reality, the fate of the world and its flora and fauna is actually irrelevant to its purpose.
Instead, it soon comes to rightly understand that it is actually more of a Hitchcock film, one whose true interest is not in educating, but in delivering suspense, including a first rate moment Sir Alfred would be proud of—the trio have set their bomb to go off and need to get out of the lake, but are stopped when someone has a flat tire at their debarkation point.
Of course, this sorta, kinda change in courses does feel a bit awkward at the end, especially towards the climax as Josh commits an unconscionable act. It’s a shocking moment, but it also makes you think, now what exactly was the point of the movie?
And I think the problem here is that when Josh does what he does, I’m not quite sure how I’m supposed to feel about it since, in many ways, it really has no connection to the earlier act of bombing the dam.
I think I’m supposed to look at it as a tragedy, but it’s not really. Josh describes it as an accident. And the problem is that he is both right and wrong. It’s not an accident in that he did do the deed and he deserves to be punished for it. It’s a crime and he shouldn’t get away with it.
At the same time, it is an accident in that it did not inherently result from the earlier actions of the characters. There is no cause and effect between the bombing and Josh’s actions. They really aren’t related. When Hamlet makes the decision to do what the ghost of his father asks, then the first domino is pushed and the rest is inevitable.
But there is nothing inevitable here.
So instead of a tragic incident, it becomes a very effective emotional twist in a suspense film.
Not that I’m complaining. I liked the film way too much to do that.
But it did feel a tad on the awkward side.
The three “friends” are played by Jesse Eisenberg (employing his usual stumbling, stuttering style as Josh, but more morose than usual); Dakota Fanning as Dena (my, how quickly they grow); and Peter Sarsgaard (doing his usual melting into his role as Harmon—he constantly makes the whole acting thing look a little too easy).
With James Le Gros, who at one time was in every other independent film made, as a feed store owner, and Matt Malloy, Aaron Eckhart’s nemesis in In the Company of Men, as a boat owner. Both are nice additions.