Ambitious enough to be interesting, The Signal is an original genre exercise that doesn’t always work, but is certainly worth a look.
The Signal is only William Eubank’s second feature, but here is my prediction: He will most certainly be tapped to helm a big-budget, high-profile superhero blockbuster within the next four years. My predictions typically go wrong, but I will stand by this one. What Eubank displays in The Signal is a striking visual style, a love for genre material, and a passion for mystery akin to, say, John Trank in Chronicle (who is, I shouldn’t need to remind Nerdist readers, the upcoming director of the newest Fantastic Four movie and one of the Star Wars spin-offs). What we see in The Signal belies a forthright talent and a stirring capability with special effects. That The Signal isn’t always perfect – indeed, it drags through certain points, and you’ll hear about the story problems below – is almost beside the point. There is so much potential on display, I can’t wait to see Eubank’s next film.
The Signal is essentially an alien abduction film, but rather than the usual big-headed Greys that were so hot in the 1990s, our heroes are abducted by something kept tactfully off-camera. While investigating what they perceive to be the pirate computer signal of a rival hacker, a trio of hackers (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cook, and Beau Knapp) have driven out to a remote cabin in the desert. The three kids are arrogant, kind of obnoxious, and way sexier than any real-life computer hacker likely is. They are about to be humbled. They are promptly sucked up into the sky.
They wake up in a mysterious, brightly-lit underground (?) laboratory of some sort, where people in full-body radiation suits begin asking them cryptic questions about “the signal.” The lead mystery man is Damon, played by Laurence Fishburne, and his calm, deep voice lends an air of overpowering dread to every question. It doesn’t take long before the wholly uncooperative kids begin to suspect that they were abducted by aliens, and that something weird has happened to their bodies…
Some viewers will be supremely frustrated by The Signal. It brings up titillating questions and makes hundreds of alluring allusions to bigger ideas, plot points, and actual explanations, but remains largely vague throughout. This is a film more about foreboding and bizarre, immediate visceral reactions than it is about explanations or even straightforward plot logic. It’s likely you will be scratching your head, asking questions as to why the kids didn’t figure out that one thins earlier, or who was doing what to whom, or what role Lin Shaye really played in this plot, or why the evil masterminds would set up that particular experiment. And why did the scientists feed a cow to an invisible monster that doesn’t return later in the movie? Is this really Area 51? There is a certain type of soul who cannot live without clarity of storytelling, and those people will loathe the lack of clarity in The Signal.
As for me, I was too taken by the atmosphere and the mystery to mind too much. I value tone over story. What The Signal lacks in general storytelling thrust, I feel it matches in creativity, interesting visuals, and overall atmosphere. David Lynch once went on record saying that solving a mystery is far less interesting than being lost in it. This is a film that is opaque, lost in mystery, and tantalizingly suggestive of any manner of things. The big “twist” ending (which you’ll hear a lot about in the ensuing weeks) suggests… well, I can’t say what exactly, but it’ll be worth discussing.
This film will cause a stir. Its quality will be hotly contested. I’m eager to see if sci-fi fans chuck it aside or embrace it. Some will hate it and some will love it. I declare that it is worth seeing, and that it is a fun, low-budget sci-fi romp that deals with largely original notions and material. It’s also the declarative statement of an interesting new talent in the genre world.