The Signal, directed by William Eubank, is a stylish sci-fi thriller that epitomizes the “less is more” ethos the genre could use a lot more of. It has a singular visual style, reliant on fairly minimal CGI that nevertheless packs a serious punch, quite literally–the scene in which one of the characters punches the ground is breath-taking in the most subtle of ways. The trailer of the movie riffs on some familiar Matrix-like motifs, not the least of which Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus-channeling turn as a Hazmat-suit-wearing doctor. Yet, you are not watching The Matrix nor District 9, as the surprising ending reveals.
The Signal starts amiably enough as a road trip movie of sorts: M.I.T. students/hackers-in-training Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving cross-country to help move Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), to California. Along the way, they are taunted by a mysterious hacker named Nomad, whom they trace to a remote area in Nevada. What they encounter there is…a Catfish scenario gone really, really awry.
Nic wakes up in a secure underground facility, surrounded by Hazmat-clad scientists. Haley is in a coma, and Jonah is only able to communicate with Nic through an air vent. In the mean time, Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne) asks Nic such trenchant questions as “are you from Earth?” and “how many toes do you have?” and informs him that the group has made contact with an “extraterrestrial biological entity.” The interaction between Nic and Dr. Damon is especially compelling and leaves the audience unsure of what is actually taking place or has happened; at first glance, the “bad guy” appears to be, yet again, “the government.” The set up is Area 51-like, where Nic and his friend are trapped and made to roam in a particularly cruel game of cat and mouse/lab rat.
Yet, the end of the film will have you talking about it for hours as you unpack all of the clues that led to a fairly innovative take on the alien trope. The cinematography is breath-taking and perfectly in sync to the adagio of the plot line. The biggest challenge for the viewers is to not leave the theatre with the same sinking feeling we were left with on the season finale of The Sopranos and to instead take the time to unpack the trail of clues. While a lot of the recent alien movies have sought to make bad guys out of either the humans or the ETs, The Signal manages to rather elegantly dodge that concern in favor of exploring the more interesting territory of “what do we have that is of interest to the aliens?” The Signal seems to point to some unexpected emotional terrain.