Three friends have their road trip cut short when they receive mysterious communications from a hacker known as NOMAD who claims to be responsible for their near-expulsion from M.I.T. Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Hayley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) track the hacker's signal to an old, abandoned house near the Arizona desert. Once there however, the trio are unable to find much of anything before Hayley suddenly disappears and a bizarre, terrifying anomaly causes them all to black out. Nic awakens in an underground research facility tended by scientists in decontamination suits led by the calm, rational, frankly sinister Dr. Damon Riles (Laurence Fishburne). Revealing nothing about the situation, nor the whereabouts of Hayley and Jonah, Dr. Riles simply asks Nic a series of questions including whether he can recall the first time he encountered the signal?
Not to be confused with the 2007 horror film of the same name, The Signal is the kind of smart, atmospheric, thought-provoking, character-driven science fiction drama fans routinely complain faded after the Seventies. Which makes it all the more perplexing and frustrating critics crying out for intelligent SF failed to recognize the film as such and instead derided it with that tiresome, far too cavalierly dispensed critical catch-all, 'mumble core.' In his second film following the similarly SF-themed Love (2011), cinematographer turned director William Eubank deftly interweaves ideas reminiscent of an episode of vintage TV show The Outer Limits with a compelling human drama. After an ambiguous yet earthbound and accessible first third, Eubank slowly feeds viewers the details, slowly mounting suspense with stark yet striking images of the wide open road and vast skies hinting at a mysterious world beyond this mortal coil.
Early on the filmmakers' strategy of ingenuity coupled with occasional, over-familiar use of shaky-cam 'realism' evoke The Blair Witch Project (1999). At one point, while exploring the abandoned house, Jonah even crouches in the corner as a prank in a jokey nod to the found-footage classic. Of course a genre film can only remain evasive and ambiguous for so long before an audience grows annoyed. As filmmakers as diverse as M. Night Shyamalan and Damon Lindelhof discovered to their cost, holding back answers can just as easily be interpreted as lacking any. Fortunately, once Nic awakens in the research facility to face Riles' implacable, reasonable yet ever more unsettling questions the film shifts gears. Further anomalies wreak havoc on the facility. Nic thinks he can hear Jonah's voice coming through an air vent. Then he makes a horrific discovery. Eubank's skillful framing and slow shift from ice blue to deep red coloured gels slowly increases a sense of disorientation in time and space, complemented by subtly paranoid performances from the solid young actors even though Fishburne is still doing his best Morpheus.
Co-written by David Frigerio, who penned and produced the interesting slasher Wreckage (2010) on which Eubank served as cinematographer, the cerebral script draws smart characters. Yet rather than positioning itself as smarter than the viewer, the plot sensibly invites them to piece the mystery together with Nic, drawing us into an escalating nightmare that according to Eubank and Frigerio explores the conflict between logic and emotion. The plot progresses with allusions to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and THX-1138 (1971) while a handful of later shocks even evoke George A. Romero's original version of The Crazies (1973). While some claim The Signal draws its philosophy from Plato's Allegory of the Cave, others maintain the finale is more along the lines of a modern interpretation of The Wizard of Oz (1939). In fact a few Marvel Comics-like twists edge this close to territory Josh Trank and Max Landis already staked out with Chronicle (2012). Admittedly the finale falls on that corny reverse-word trick but then so did Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980). If the final twist is a leap too far into familiar Matrix terrain, as signified by Fishburne's presence, SF fans may still value the benefits of posing interesting questions over delivering concrete answers.