Fourteen years ago, Robert Zemeckis defended his decision to divulge major spoilers in the trailer of What Lies Beneath, arguing that audiences prefer attending a movie when they know going in precisely what they will see. “It’s just one of those things,” he told David Poland, an excuse of such disingenuousness that one might presume his statement belied a possible run for political office. (Indeed, when I first read that line several years ago, I envisioned Zemeckis cowering behind it with the same hunch of a candidate waving his hands to a dissenting crowd during a stump speech after letting slip a flog of lore and shouting, “Statistics don’t lie!” over its incredulous din. No, statistics don’t lie, but statisticians often do.) Regardless of his claim’s dubious veracity, the resulting mindset permeated a medium already denigrated by inept craftsmen and second-rate artisans to the point where its most readily available trifles resembled the ramshackle cuisine rolling from the never-ending assembly line between McDonald’s golden arches. Even those celluloid confections crafted with the utmost care by auteurs demonstrating a love of both form and content nonetheless face audiences fully aware of both text and subtext before the theater lights dim. Gone forever are the days of arriving at a theater on a whim and casually perusing the posters before asking the pimply adolescent working in the box office for a summary of one or two features. We can blame Internet culture for their demise—it certainly didn’t help—but the rise of focus groups placed them in the crosshairs long before.
Though no movie genre escapes this relentless scrutiny, it often cripples science fiction movies to the point where the key pleasures lack precisely the element of surprise that should bring the most enjoyment. Incessant coverage of summer blockbusters, from the six-figure deals made to acquire a high-concept screenplay to the barrage of non-stories surrounding choices of director, cast, soundtrack, and early buzz, occasionally might elude the fortunate moviegoer, but too often those either bordering the science fiction genre or living well within its territories exhibit even their most mundane revelations within the trailers preceding their release, transforming the Future into a land not only settled but as interesting as a street crowded by strip malls.
William Eubank’s The Signal arrived in theaters this summer in a manner that appeared poised to buck this depressing trend. A small-budget, mostly independent feature focusing on character, it opened with little more than the barest outline provided by a few lines of press notes—about three young people who stumble upon a secret in the middle of the American west—and an intriguing poster of a person in a white hazmat suit standing in a hallway reflected in an infinity mirror, bestowing an atmosphere akin to such paranoid 1970s science fiction classics as The Andromeda Strain and The Crazies. Such semiotic tricks at least allow audiences to at least think they knew the movie in store for them, especially those aimed at all-knowing cinematic hipsters who display affectionate contempt for what they see.
And, in a sense, Eubank and his co-screenwriters Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio do deliver what they seem to promise, at least initially. Three MIT students take a road trip to California after the college nearly expels two of them for an issue involving the school’s servers during a hacker attack. One of the group, Haley (Olivia Cooke), plans on relocating on the West Coast, which angers her boyfriend Nic (Brendan Thwaites), who believes this to be a ploy to end their relationship. (Nic already shoulders loathing for losing the use of his legs, presumably in an accident involving a marathon run.) As they travel, NOMAD, the hacker involved in the server attack, locates the trio, leaving clues to his whereabouts through ominous e-mails and camera footage of the group as they trek across the country. Nic and Jonah (Beau Knapp) track NOMAD’s location to an abandoned house in Nevada, where the two black out after seeing Haley dragged into the air by an unseen entity (through footage shot with their video camera, suggesting that the Blair Witch now pilots an alien mothership). When Nic awakes, he finds himself in an underground facility where a Dr. William Damon informs him that he and his friends encountered an extraterrestrial biological entity. Nic refuses to believe Damon despite video evidence, and hears Jonah speaking to him through an air vent. “My body feels weird,” he tells Nic. Then even stranger events occur.
Saying more might possibly sap viewers otherwise predisposed to The Signal’s pulp indie sensibilities of the thrill of discovery, though science fiction fans likely will guess the secrets within even before Eubank peels them from the narrative like a cook skinning an onion. The entire movie benefits from Eubank’s desire to tease his movie’s mysteries into view, something one wishes, as The Signal’s end credits roll, more movies would do, especially because the disorientation is the key. Obviously Eubank and his cowriters studied The Blair Witch Project and Michael Crichton for atmosphere, The Twilight Zone for structure, as well as several other classic science fiction movies and recent science fictional themes for material.
Unfortunately, for all of Eubank’s intent to avoid cinematic myopia, The Signal never quite amounts to much. Like Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, its best sequences (as when the trio attempts to escape recapture with newly found…no, even that might divulge more than is wise; let us simply say they escape recapture) create a sense of wonder, ecstasy, and dread one might hope to find in such a movie, but the component parts fit together like a pieces of several puzzles combined into one box. Eubank, like Kelly, loves the discordances, but lacks sufficient skill to unify them. The end result frustrates…but one must actually watch the movie to see why.
Moving to more mainstream fare, the element of shock become far more scare. As a result, we seek other avenues of surprise, however trivial. The tag line “Live. Die. Repeat.” captures Doug Liman’s new action picture Edge of Tomorrow with such precision that one expects a certain bloodlessness from the finished product. This is, after all, one of this season’s inaugural efforts, which pairs two well-known movie stars (one cannot quite use the term “actor” with a straight face) against an army of invading alien Mimics capable of bending the laws of space and time, one of whom inadvertently grants its power to Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) by baptizing him in gouts of luminous blue blood (ironic, given my own expectation) while locked in battlefield combat. He dies, yet wakes to relive the previous morning, knowing that the platoon with which he has been assigned faces certain slaughter. When he learns that Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the “Angel of Verdun” who slew hundreds of Mimics, also possessed his ability at one point, they embark on a method of training him, and possibly to finally stop the invasion.
Being a summer blockbuster, Edge of Tomorrow extends little time to philosophical inquiry, perhaps under the assumption that its target audience understands neither argument from evidence nor the pronunciation of the term “philosophy.” Death merely means rebooting the course of the day to get it right, akin to Richard A Lupoff’s “12:01 PM,” Ken Grimwood’s Replay, and Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day. Nor does the movie mention whether or not Cage, in quaffing from the timestream, carries with him memories of the pain he endures with each subsequent death. Such things, of course, would slow the narrative’s driving concerns, a story already familiar to us.
Or so we think.
Yes, Liman runs Edge of Tomorrow through the routine action thriller paradigm with the same bland efficiency he brought to The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth provide moments not normally seen in such disposable entertainment. Cage (whose name, unfortunately, drips with the blood of subtextual overkill) proves not to be a soldier, but a self-absorbed salesmen in officer’s dress, meant to provide a Mad Men–esque touch to United Defense Force’s propaganda and who attempts to squirm out of a front-line assignment, only to find himself only one small rivet in their offensive’s Operation Human Shield. The Mimics reveal themselves to be creatures from primordial nightmares, masses of flowing tentacles sprouting from single Cerberus-like heads. At one point, Cage suggests to Vrataski that there might be a way to transfer his power to her using fluids other than blood, in language as subtle as Dan Brown identifying his novel’s villains. (Wisely, she shoots him.) Cruise and Blunt, too, work well with the material, turning in performances that require little but nonetheless elevates it above more unremarkable fare. Asking for a science fiction classic today might be asking too much of Edge of Tomorrow’s talent (again, a generous word) or the studio bankrolling them, but they still salvage it from becoming yet another identical cog in Hollywood’s perpetual cloning machine. Which perhaps is the biggest surprise of all, and one for which the trailers never prepared us.