Plenty to look at but enough plot holes to make viewers question their sanity right along with the characters.
This slow, but intriguing film first made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The increase in indie sci-fi films (read about a few of our favorites) has provoked a sub genre devoted to the subtlety and mystery utilized in sci-fi films, with understated (and under budget) visuals. The Signal uses this same formula, however stretched too thin.
Directed by William Eubanks, whose only other directing credit is for 2011’s Love, the film is about three MIT students road tripping to California. Nic (Brenton Thwaites), who uses forearm crutches to walk and whose consistent dreams of running tell us this wasn’t always the case, is taking his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to study in California for a semester. With them is his friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) and as they trek the two are constantly plugged in to their computers, trying to track the hacker, Nomad, who has been harassing them in the cyber world and who brought down servers at MIT, placing the blame on them. When they discover that Nomad’s GPS coordinates are along their route in Nevada, they can’t help but decide to take a detour and face him in person. The coordinates lead them to a seemingly abandoned house in the middle of the desert where things escalate and Nic ends up blacked out. When he wakens in a government institution in a wheelchair and surrounded by workers in space suits, he has to try to piece together what happened and why Haley lies comatose in a nearby room and Jonah is nowhere to be seen, but his voice seems to be coming through the air vent in Nic’s room.
Laurence Fishburne does his best, well, Laurence Fishburne as one of the scientists on Nic’s case, Dr. Wallace Damon. Few actors have perfected slow-speaking poker-faced delivery as well as he has and at many points it wouldn’t have been surprising if he’d pulled out a red pill and a blue pill and offered them to Nic. Dr. Damon asks tortuously enigmatic questions of Nic, answers almost none of his questions, and then just lays it on the table that it appears that Nic and his friends were abducted by aliens and that he and the others have to wear these outdated looking space suits because they fear contamination to whatever Nic and his friends were exposed to.
After getting no answers from the scientists, a few strange occurrences at the compound, and urgent whisperings from Jonah through the air vent that weird things are happening to him, Nic decides to break out with the sleeping Haley. From then on, as the film progresses into one big chase scene, it’s twist after twist revealing the magnitude of their situation as bigger than Nic thought and his sanity and his own body are in jeopardy.
The mysteries pile up throughout the film to the point that it seems there will either be a really surprising and satisfying payoff where all our minds are blown or… not. Unfortunately, The Signal decides that answering the biggest mystery should be enough to satisfy, but the film brings up so many other interesting questions that when it fails to acknowledge them at all the disappointment overshadows the general enjoyment the film had been building up.
It’s more than clear that The Signal‘s writer/director, William Eubank, is first and foremost a cinematographer. The film is visually saturated, relying on epic HFR slow-mo at key points to detract from the obvious plot holes. It’s a really good-looking film, with warm sunsets for romantic flashbacks between Nic and Haley, and blinding bright desert scenes depicting the hopelessness of their current situation. But no amount of pretty can make up for all those unanswered questions and strange editing choices. A scene with a cow featuring a strangely underused Sarah Clarke is never made mention of again. An amazing cameo by Lin Shaye as an enthusiastic gibberish spouting local who gives Nic and Haley a ride, gets hardly any further explanation.
Eubank couldn’t quite see the forest for the trees and has made a film with beautiful pieces that don’t form much of a picture. Some sci-fi enthusiasts will enjoy the open-ended nature of the film and its demand for personal interpretation, but this narrative-driven critic can’t help but see how a little more plot and a few less spectacles could have taken this fun film that much further.