William Eubank's indie sci-fi thriller The Signal isn't going to be a film for everyone, but there are some of you out there who are absolutely going to love it. There are definitely times when you'll ask yourself what the hell is going on and not be entirely sure, and there are moments when the film is needlessly obtuse and obfuscates the facts seemingly just to frustrate he hell out of you.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't embark on this particular journey. It may be difficult, but sifting through the piled on layers is worth it in the end. What The Signal lacks in character development and standard plot mechanics, it more than makes up for in mood, tone, and atmosphere. Sound, score, cinematography, and every other element come together in order to create a narrative thick with tension and suspense.
Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cook), and Jonah (Beau Knapp), three MIT students, drive across country to deliver Haley to Cal Tech, traitor. The early action is half dreamy road trip adventure mixed with a running hacker battle between the two boys and a mysterious rival named Nomad who almost got them kicked out of school. When they decide to confront their nemesis in person, the trail leads them to a ramshackle cabin in the Nevada wilderness. That’s where things go wrong, like horror movie wrong, and Nic wakes up quarantined in a sterile, if outdated, medical facility far underground.
From this point, The Signal takes a more psychological mystery bend, as Nic engages in a running battle of wits with a stoic doctor named Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who won’t give him a straight answer about his status or that of his friends. All Damon is interested in are cryptic questions, but Nic has many of his own. Why are they being held captive, what exactly did they encounter out there, where are his friends, and what’s up with his legs, are chief among them. He can’t figure out who, if anyone, to trust, or whether or not he may be losing his mind.
The Signal falls smack in the middle of a triangle of indie thrillers, low-budget horror, and esoteric science fiction, borrowing tools and tropes from all three of these subsets. The scene at the desert cabin could have been lifted from any of numerous found footage horror joints, there are long, slow following shots, as well as other nuts and bolts lifted from other places. Picking and pulling like this, Eubanks and company create a unique mash up of genres and infuses the film with a fresh aesthetic that never shows its hand.
Gorgeously photographed, which is a feat considering the middle act of the film takes place in a stark white medical facility buried underground, the visual side is where Eubank really flexes his muscles. Only his second time at the helm of a feature—his first go round was 2011’s Love—he has served as cinematographer for many other films, and that experience definitely shows through here. Every broad, sweeping landscape shot is a stunning composition, and a slow-motion water motif that carries through is just one of many striking aesthetic touches.
Though I can’t talk much about it without delving into major spoilers, there is a point where The Signal even works in a serious superhero vibe, playing out like a comic book origin story. When the film ends, you can’t help but think that there must be more out there in the future and that this is the beginning arc in a much larger narrative. This isn’t a movie for everyone, and not one that makes for repeated casual viewings, but it is a cool, stylish, film with a lot offer those of you willing to look.