As a combination of tremendous special effects and Laurence ‘Morpheus’ Fishburne doing what he does best, director William Eubank’s Sundance hit The Signal does have a lot of pulling power as a sci – fi movie that manages to be both sparse and incredibly intriguing in equal measure in its narrative of a group of cocky young hackers trapped in an Area 51 research facility. Despite its dodgy ‘found footage opening’ the rudimental appeal of The Signal falls down a sly, funny question mark that pervades the narrative as audiences are kept out of the loop until the final act.
Beginning with a melancholy road trip MIT college kids, terminally ill Nic (Brendon Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), vengefully travel to confront a computer hacker in the Southwest. But after a strange blackout near the hacker’s base, Nic awakens in a sterile research facility separated from his friends, with the rest of the movie playing out as a cruel combination of Kubrick and The Twilight Zone, as we are introduced Laurence Fishburne’s character, a stoic government type who like his co –workers never takes off his protective suit to risk getting “exposed”. As the characters reunite and pedantically attempt to find out the reason for their predicament, the scope of the film opens up to a Truman Show style premise, where checkpoints and interactions with locals bring into question where the lines between the facility and “reality” begin with a few ‘medical modifications’ injecting an element of sci – fi body horror to the proceedings.
However as The Signal is so determined to remain mysterious – and roll out a huge effects sequence at the movies climax – it often withholds too much, with only a few flashbacks to flesh out our teen heroes and thus really care for them. Similarly the female character Haley becomes almost redundant throughout the film, with a lot of the narrative involving bland conversations on literal roads to nowhere and despite being MIT students ‘something in the water’ leaves the characters a little dozy making their attempted escape a slow and laborious one. Fishburne’s interrogation scenes of control and observation also manage to pack a sinister punch and the ending, which many will see coming, is pretty satisfying in its attempts to get you thinking about the whole narrative with a critical eye.
Despite its stubborn lack of exposition keeping characters and audiences in the dark, I have a lot of time for The Signal although its premise did have the potential to be infinitely more frightening. Nevertheless as a film that doesn’t fall into the typical tropes of science fiction dystopia of a ‘single action hero saving humanity through impossible odds’, The Signal is a fun, stylish assault on the mainstream sci – fi blockbuster with a meandering plot that hangs a big question mark over audiences head and patiently waits for them to bite. Although it may have been a lot more effective as short film, at least it will serve as an impressive show reel for certain members of the effects crew.
Director: William Eubank
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne, Beau Knapp, Lin Shaye
Runtime: 96 mins