There are reasons to be irked by "The Signal," William Eubank's thriller-cum-resumé movie, which seems intended to show what the young writer-director will be able to do when Michael Bay finally collapses and needs to hand "Transformers XXV" off to a younger director. There are also reasons to be irritated by fate. Had Focus Features not been shuttered, and "The Signal" not been a Focus movie, it's hard to imagine that this technically accomplished trip into Kubrickian dystopia wouldn't have been given a harder sell, especially to a genre-fluent crowd that will undoubtedly eat it up.
Horror/sci-fi/fantasy has become a bit like Supremacist painting, or 12-tone music: To really appreciate the nuances and self-reflection, you have to understand what's missing. This requires fluency in the vocabulary of the form, something Eubank, who wrote the "Signal" script with his brother Carlyle and David Frigerio, possesses in abundance. His heroic trio -- Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) -- are en route to the West Coast, where Haley is moving; Nic and Haley are involved romantically, but it's falling apart. Meanwhile, Jonah and Nic want to make a detour to try and find the mysterious hacker named Nomad who has infiltrated the servers at their school, MIT, and has engaged them in a game of one-upmanship as they journey across Middle America into the nightmare in which they will find themselves.
Along the way, Eubank visits everything from "The Blair Witch Project" to "Brazil," from "2001" to the young-adult novel. In fact, "The Signal" might well have been titled "Harry Potter and the Secret Government Cauldron of Paranoia."
But amid all the self-conscious virtuosity, certain things are right. The sound, which imparts dread; the penurious meting out of information, which imparts more dread; and the cinematography of David Lanzenberg, which marries a Big Sky America to the airless claustrophobia of . . . what? Can't tell you. But the recommendation here is to see it, while trying to remain blind to the ambition.
PLOT Road trip turns nightmare after three college friends pursuing a mysterious hacker are abducted by aliens.
RATING PG-13 (thematic elements, violence and language)
CAST Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne
BOTTOM LINE Far less substance than style, but the style is pretty awesome.