I’m always fascinated by independent science-fiction cinema. Films like THX-1138, District 9, Primer, and now William Eubank’s The Signal take us to places that mainstream science-fiction films refuse to go, to the places where there are no fluffy Ewoks, laser pistols, converted DeLoreans, or Prime Directives. These films often say more about us as a society and as humans than any space opera or outer space action film could. Don’t get me wrong – there is a time and a place for the big tentpole sci-fi films, but it’s the ones that sneak under the radar that are often the most rewarding and fulfilling.
Such is the case with The Signal. Boasting a tiny cast and a sparse screenplay, The Signal starts off innocuously enough, introducing us to crippled ex-runner Nick (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), and fellow student Jonah (Beau Knapp), as they drive Haley across the country to Cal Tech. Full of the typical piss and vinegar that comes along with youth, Nick and Jonah decide to make a stop in Nevada to confront Nomad, a hacker whose pranks nearly caused them to get expelled from MIT. Using their hacking skills and Nick’s mathematical genius, they find Nomad’s address and take a detour into the Nevada wild to find him.
When they find the supposed house from where this guy seems to be broadcasting, The Signal takes a mighty turn from where you think it might be going and dives down a rabbit hole of confusion and strangeness that I haven’t seen since the aforementioned Primer. Nick is faced with what looks like a government conspiracy headed up by an authority figure in a hazmat suit (Laurence Fishburne), who calmly asks Nick weird questions and won’t let him see his friends. Day after day, Nick is held captive in what looks like a sterile lab, with only his mind and Jonah’s disembodied voice to keep him company.
When Nick uses his brilliance to break out of his holding cell, we finally start to get some answers… but they may not be the answers we want. Director/co-writer Eubank welds us tightly in our bewilderment, with only the ending of the film offering any kind of coherent possible explanation for what we’ve just witnessed. He slips between the characters’ memories and their imaginations, willingly casting us into befuddlement and tasking us with paying strict attention to every detail.
For instance, it’s established that Nick cannot walk without crutches. Yet, we are frequently shown images of him running alongside Jonah, ending up alone before a road that’s been washed out by a flood. We see footage of Nick and Haley at a fairground on a swing-ride. All of this is meshed with the forward progression of the story, almost highlighting and enhancing what’s going on in the film’s reality. Believe me, the film’s sense of “reality” is quite skewed, with its denizens either being crazy or tight-lipped. It’s a reality where everything is completely wrong, and the ending will make sure that you know why it’s so wrong.
The Signal seems to enjoy living in perplexity. Once it’s all over, you’ll kick it around in your head for days, wondering what everything meant; some things make perfect sense upon reflection, and some things remain head-scratchingly odd. Eubanks borrows from films and television shows like Chronicle, District 9, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, Dark City, The Blair Witch Project, and other great science-fiction hallmarks to make his own distinct statement on humanity and how our own psyches are easily toyed with and challenged.
With its intriguing and devilishy disturbing nature, it’s no surprise that The Signal caught me totally off-guard and knocked me over with its creative storytelling and its willingness to take a large chance in being extraordinary. By being deft and playing it loose with the audience’s perception of Nick’s situation, our only choice is to be engrossed and enraptured as Eubanks whisks us away into the mystery of The Signal.