July 2 2014 12:00 AM

Indie sci-fi ‘The Signal’ perpetuates ‘mystery box’ myth

For six mind-bending seasons, “Lost” captivated TV audiences and left a lasting influence on popular entertainment, for better and for worse. For better: Mainstream re-embracement of science fiction, long-form storytelling that doesn’t adhere to linear plots, a willingness to kill off main characters. For worse: A cliffhanger at every commercial break and the maddening habit of leaving plot points unresolved — a technique showrunner J.J. Abrams’ dubbed “the mystery box.”

“Maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge,” Abrams said in a 2007 TEDTalk three years before the “Lost” finale. Suddenly it was OK to simply spin a mystery for the sake of getting viewers hooked by any means necessary, resolution be damned.

Which brings us to indie sci fi flick “The Signal.” Directed and co-written by William Eubank, this twisty little yarn feels like a four-season TV series compressed into a single film. MIT junior Nic (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) and his best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) are goaded through a series of emails by a hacker named Nomad as they take a cross-country road trip. Nomad demonstrates that he’s watching them through their own computers and tracking their car via street cameras. Nic and Jonah triangulate Nomad’s signal to a remote desert town just off their charted course. They make a detour and enter Nomad’s abandoned-looking shack in the middle of the night. Why? “Mystery box.”

But oh, dear reader, it was a trap! Nic blacks out, and when he wakes up he’s strapped in a wheelchair in some kind of underground bunker. He can’t feel his legs. Through the vent he hears Jonah’s voice, who says he can’t feel his arms. Haley’s in some sort of coma. And Morpheus, um, Damon (Laurence Fishburne) arrives in a Hazmat suit to calmly explain that the trio had a close encounter with aliens and are being examined for possible contamination.

But is that really Jonah that Nic is talking to? Why does Haley keep waking up and fluttering back to sleep? And what is that thing devouring whole cows in the next room and leaving deep scorch marks along the walls? All together now: “Mystery box.”

I wanted to like “The Signal.” The acting is uniformly solid. The impressive visual effects create a disorienting slip between reality and Nic’s dreams/hallucinations. And the soundtrack has a haunting retro-futuristic vibe. Moreover, the film has been swirling with good buzz since its debut at Sundance last year, and its arrival in local theaters was perfectly timed as an antidote to the fourth “Transformers” movie, which not even its most ardent fans can accuse of having anything close to redeemable values.

But the thing holding “The Signal” back is its ardent need to withhold information for the sake of seeming deep. Yes, it would be nice to have more movies that aren’t sequels, reboots, remakes or “reimaginings” (or based on a comic book, YA novel or ‘80s cartoon), but Eubank’s film covers no new ground. It seems as though he’s aiming for a contemplation of human perception and stir up the debate over human free will, but it instead smacks unfavorably of M. Night Shyamalan’s tricks and Richard Kelly obtuseness. It also bears a striking resemblance to the criminally overlooked 1998 neo-noir film, “Dark City.”

Eubank seems to be able to coax intense performances from his actors and displays a knack for visual flair; his previous outing, 2011’s “Love,” also earned high praise. But he’s part of a generation weaned on shows like “Lost” and “The X-Files” where the ending is viewed as a concept that needs be broached someday, not as an eventuality that needs to be kept constantly in mind. Which is fine for a TV show, if you don’t mind banging your head against the wall every week, but for a movie, all audiences really want are answers.