The Signal (2014)

Directed by William Eubank

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The Signal is a tough nut to crack, a modest little science fiction film that aims to keep you guessing.  Despite that maze it sets up, the film opens on a surprisingly charming, sensitive scene involving Nic (Brenton Thwaites), physically handicapped, giving a dollar to a young boy sitting longingly beside an arcade game.

That sensitivity hangs over the opening few minutes of the story, as we watch Nic, his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) and best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) travel cross country after graduating college.  They are taking Haley to her new home in California, but this serves only to provide them a destination and suggest a rift in the relationship between Nic and Haley.

While this is going on, Nic and Jonah are already in the midst of a cyber battle with some sort of hacker named “Nomad.”  This is someone who hacked the MIT servers, for which Nic and Jonah were blamed, and has then been hounding the two friends across the country.  When Nic and Jonah seek to further antagonize Nomad, they will be sent roadside security camera footage of their car traveling cross country.

Equally unnerved and excited, they decide to stop off in Nevada where it seems Nomad lives.  What they find is an isolated, dilapidated cabin straight out of a horror movie.  Against their better judgments, Nic and Jonah enter while Haley waits in the car, but soon she disappears and a bright blue flash of light demands out attention before we cut to black.

Nic, and we, wake up in a sterile facility, with him groggy in a wheelchair, sitting across from a man in a hazmat suit (Laurence Fishburne), telling Nic that he has made “first contact” with an alien life form and must thus be quarantined.

He soon hears Jonah whispering to him through the vents and sees Haley in a coma.  Frightened, Nic grows agitated, particularly as the hazmat suits in charge refuse to give him any easy answers.

From this point on the maze unfolds to reveal new implications and occasionally a few answers.  It’s unclear what happened to Nic and his friends or what the intentions are of the people who guard them.  Different theories abound, but all that really matters is that Nic wants only to escape with his friends, and those in charge want them to stay still.

With every level from which they emerge, the characters will find themselves in what seems to be a larger sort of prison.  It’s not unlike the HBO show Westworld, in which you emerge from one maze to find yourself in another.

The goal here is to have you guessing right up until the very end of the movie, and that’s a dangerous game to play.  In The Signal I’d say it works well enough, but such a focus often overlooks character development.  Nic, Jonah and Haley are just vessels through which to explore a “choose your own adventure” kind of game.  Nic, to be sure, is a defined character, but the others are much more flat, there only to serve his storyline.

I found some of it challenging only because the first five minutes of the movie set up a story I actually did want to see.  It’s a low budget affair between the three friends traveling across country, marveling at aquarium exhibits and sharing late night blizzards at a Sonic fast-food restaurant.  It’s simple, but I quite enjoyed this little montage and wanted to see where it headed.

Instead of building on any of this kind of forward momentum, this falls into horror movie cliches and tropes (in the cabin) and then grinds to a complete halt once we reach the mysterious, sterile government facility.

There is a mystery here and it’s certainly engaging, but it was just a different story than the one I had hoped to follow.  I think the mystery works because I was hoping and rooting for the characters to find some kind of catharsis with a hint of what we saw in the opening sequence of the film, but with every plot twist and turn the story takes us further and further away from reality.

So The Signal is admirable and exciting.  It’s certainly not quite like any low budget science fiction movie I’ve seen, and it does have a daring quality like that of Moon (2009), which I wish more movies (like Passengers) embraced.

Up Next: Harvey (1950), Cemetery of Splendor (2015), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

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