You have no idea how much I hoped that The Signal would work. From its mysterious trailer to its first … two acts, really, this is a film that seemed like it would be one of those sci-fi thrillers that anyone who saw it would be unable to stop talking about it. But it eventually becomes a completely different movie, and that doesn’t work to its benefit. Some groaner-level plot twists take us out of the story, and the mystery winds up being less interesting the more we find out about it.
Our movie initially follows three MIT students, Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke), and Jonah (Beau Knapp). Nic and Haley are a couple, and the three are on a cross-country road trip to help Haley move. They’ve also been dealing with a hacker calling himself NOMAD, who in an early scene breaks into their computer. They track him down and decide to confront him. The first change in direction is here, as the film briefly diverges into found-footage horror. They approach the house of this NOMAD fellow, go inside, look around, and then … Haley is puller into the sky, the camera fades to black, and then Nic, our lead, wakes up in a room sitting across from Dr. William Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who tells him that he and his friends were abducted by aliens.
Yeah, that happened. Nic is understandably in shock, as are we. Something is off, but we can’t tell what. Soon enough, Nic starts to hallucinate. We’re unsure if he’s a reliable narrator. He answers some questions but demands to see Haley. The place he’s being held in is like a hospital-prison. It looks like a hospital, but operates more like a prison.
Another change in direction comes when Nic tries to break out of the facility with a semi-comatose Haley (Jonah is nowhere to be found; Damon claims they did not recover his body). And then it takes a couple of different turns, the plot twists begin mounting, and it just gets silly. We spend much of the movie confused by what’s happening, but once we find out what has happened, we groan and say “that’s it?”
The mystery and the atmosphere are big parts of The Signal, so this comes as an even bigger disappointment. The tension mostly comes from never knowing what’s going on. That’s it. The characters aren’t particularly interesting, it’s hard to view the “villains” as much of a threat, and the chases and shootouts are not involving. It’s all about finding out the truth. And the truth winds up not being worth finding out. So what does The Signal have to fall back on?
Well, its direction is really, really solid. These problems come not from the person behind the camera, but from the one behind the pen. Unfortunately, in this case, the same man filled both roles, at least in part. William Eubank directed The Signal and co-wrote it. There’s no issue with the direction. Scenes are wonderfully composed, the film has a distinct style, and the mix of different styles winds up working. The ability to keep the level of mystery up throughout most of the picture is astounding. The problem was on the writers’ table. The story just doesn’t work as a three-act film.
At least the film is about something, as most good science fiction should be. The lead character — and the only one with any depth or development — is Nic, and his growth consists of growing from a completely logical being to one who relies on emotion. No, seriously. That’s the whole point. This logical MIT student needs to start thinking with his heart and not with his brain. Emotion trumps logic. That’s fine. The movie can say what it wants. I’m not judging.
Early on, I really wasn’t sold on the acting. Brenton Thwaites’ “confused and in pain face” was really bad, and it was on-screen for something like five minutes. But after he got past that stage, he made for a solid protagonist. Laurence Fishburne is always a welcome presence, even if he’s there just to be a, well, solid screen presence. Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp are relegated to decidedly supporting (and uninteresting) roles, as the film is clearly focused on Thwaites’ character.
The Signal is weird, scattershot, and confusing for most of its running time, even if the mystery is ultimately not as interesting as the film builds it up to be. It’s a letdown, actually, which is a shame. There’s some real talent shown behind the camera, but the plot needed a couple of additional re-writes. It’s stylish and visually fantastic, and it has a message, but it’s hard to get over how much of it relies on building to mysteries that turn out to be underwhelming and unsatisfactory. It’s almost worth seeing if you’re a big fan of low-budget sci-fi, but for most people this is a film to skip.