With influences ranging from Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” to Michael Bay’s “The Island” to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, William Eubank’s turn-a-minute thriller “The Signal” is in competition with “Under the Skin” for the most intriguingly bizarre sci-fi film so far this year. Does it all make sense? Absolutely not. Does it need to? Not really.
Nic (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) and best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) are on a road trip out west when they receive a message from a mysterious computer wizard known as “Nomad”. As MIT students who’ve occasionally deviated from the rules, Nic and Jonah are anxious to expose Nomad, a competitive hacker who it seems has resurfaced from dormancy with the sole purpose of taunting them.
When they trace Nomad’s location to a shack in a remote area of Nevada, it’s immediately evident that something isn’t right, and the film makes an abrupt shift from techie teen drama to “X-Files” episode (but not before squeezing in a quick nod to “The Blair Witch Project”), as Haley gets whisked away into the night sky.
After blacking out, Nic finds himself in a brightly lit, white-walled facility filled with curiously antiquated equipment (a tube television, a cassette recorder, an analog wall clock that isn’t working, etc.). A man in a hazmat suit (Laurence Fishburne) asks him some questions, but won’t give him any answers, other than suggesting that he’s been contaminated by an E.B.E. (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity). He’s not allowed to go home to his parents, and they won’t tell him anything about his friends. Something more than the discovery of little green men is afoot, Nic has a feeling. Time travel? Medical experiments? Government conspiracy? All three? There’s one scene that insinuates phantom cow-tippers are involved. Sci-fi junkies, start formulating your theories.
Incorporating more elements of different sub-genres into its narrative than probably any film I’ve seen this year, and making its comparatively meager $2 million budget look ten times its size with some smartly designed slow motion sequences, gorgeous cinematography by David Lanzenberg and nearly flawless editing by Brian Berdan (“5 Days of War”), “The Signal” is the very definition of passionate filmmaking. It’s an existential brain-teaser, a love story and an action flick all rolled into one. Nima Fakhrara’s intensely hypnotic score pulses like it’s hooked up to a heart monitor; it correlates so fluidly to the film’s ever-changing tone and pace that you’d probably get something out of it even if you went in to the theater blindfolded.
Equally impressive is the young cast, who are thoroughly believable even in their increasingly surreal environment. Appearing in the majority of the scenes, Thwaites, who starred in last month’s “Maleficent”, resembles something of a young Ethan Hawke at his finest. Not having the full use of his legs, Nic is a brilliant, ruthlessly determined young man whose problem-solving abilities are on par with John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”. His true vulnerability only appears at the beginning of the film, when Haley drops the bomb that she’s going to be moving away for a year. His reaction is self-preserving, but not immature: he breaks up with her, but is honest about his feelings. As the film moves forward into stranger and stranger territory, the depth of their relationship is revealed via flashbacks and dreams, in which Nic remembers (or possibly imagines, it’s sometimes hard to discern between the two) more carefree times. Their bond is achingly palpable. When Nic discovers the truth about Haley and Jonah’s whereabouts, and his surrounding start to make less and less sense, he begins to figure out ways to escape his mysterious captors, but not before finding out something even more shocking about himself.
“The Signal” is so visually creative that it practically demands that you overlook some glaring inconsistencies in the script, which Eubank wrote with brother Carlyle and David Frigerio (2010’s Aaron Paul starring horror flick “Wreckage”). Where it stumbles, however, is more indicative of a filmmaker who is willing to take chances, not one of inexperience. Eubank’s sophomore feature effort as a director (the first being 2011’s “Love”) feels completely unrestrained in the direction that it ends up heading. And while it’s likely that the conclusion won’t be a total shock if you’ve cycled through enough possible outcomes in your head, it’s unlikely that you’ll expect the off-the-wall way that it gets there. Despite it being an amalgam of some classic concepts, some of which it improves upon and some that it doesn’t, “The Signal” still looks and feels like a total original.