Signal, The (United States, 2014)

June 12, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Signal, The Poster

The Signal ends up as a completely different movie than it is at the start. This pretty much guarantees that, although the astute viewer might intuit some of the twists and turns, at least some surprises will remain. In fact, although the movie provides clues to what it all means, it doesn't expend the time or energy to connect all the dots. Director William Eubank relies on the intelligence and ingenuity of audience members to puzzle everything out and arrive at a solution. It's more heavy lifting than some will be willing to engage in but there's something welcome about a motion picture that doesn't hand out a dumbed-down resolution in a neatly wrapped package.

The initial beats of The Signal indicates it could be headed into high-tech thriller country. Three college-age people - Nic (Brenton Thwaites); his girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke); and his best buddy, Jonah (Beau Knapp) - are headed on a cross-country drive to deliver Haley to her new abode in California. While stopping at a motel one night, they are contacted by NOMAD, a mysterious hacker who challenges them to thwart him. Unable to pass up the challenge, they track him to a mysterious dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. And, just when it looks like The Signal is headed into The Blair Witch Project territory, it takes an unexpected right turn and speeds off toward a fusion between The Matrix and TRON.

Low-budget sci-fi films are a godsend because they take the kinds of risks that higher budget projects shy away from. The Signal, like its brethren (which include, but are not limited to, Moon and Under the Skin), prizes ideas over special effects. As the narrative progresses, the filmmakers want the viewer to ponder. They don't provide a barrage of eye-popping space battles. For the most part, everything looks surprisingly… ordinary… if just a bit "off." Eubank gets bang for his buck. The settings he uses fit the story like a glove. These are real places, not images developed in a computer.

Post-haunted house, The Signal becomes a giant puzzle. From the moment Laurence Fishburne enters the picture, playing the mysterious Dr. Wallace Damon, we are advised to question everything. Is this a story of alien abduction or is something more sinister at work? Why can't Nic feel his legs? Where are Haley and Jonah? And who or what is NOMAD? It's no longer certain we're under the influence of a reliable narrator. Perception may not be reality. There are a couple of very strange characters, played by Robert Longstreet and Lin Shaye, who have small but important parts. When Nic learns one truth about himself, he's no closer to finding out what's really going on than he was at the beginning.

The ending of The Signal provides us with some answers but not all of them. At first glance, the movie seems to depart the screen leaving behind a Swiss cheese-like tapestry of holes. The initial reaction fades, however, the more carefully one considers all the possibilities raised by Eubank's clues. The Signal isn't a perfect film - the pacing is uneven, the delicately developed relationship between Nic and Haley is allowed to founder, and the ending offers an element of frustration. Nevertheless, this movie is thought-provoking and intelligent and those qualities, prized by early purveyors of science fiction, are most welcome in an era when space opera has come to dominate (and perhaps even define) the genre.

Signal, The (United States, 2014)

Director: William Eubank
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne
Screenplay: William Eubank & Carlyle Eubank & David Frigerio
Cinematography: David Lanzenberg
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2014-06-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Disturbing Images)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1