PLOT: Three friends on a road trip attempt to find a hacker who is taunting them with bizarre messages and veiled threats. When they arrive at what they think is his home base, they discover something else entirely.
REVIEW: Sharp ideas, excellent cinematography and an overall sense of low-budget ingenuity lift THE SIGNAL above of its predictability and resemblance to a couple other sci-fi films (that shall remain nameless). Director William Eubank is obviously a student of both highbrow and lowbrow genre cinema, which enables him to make THE SIGNAL both a brain-teasing mystery and an eerie thriller with enough suspense and action to satisfy the less patient audience members.
It's best not to know too much about THE SIGNAL going in because discovery just what the hell it's all about is half the fun; indeed, labeling it a "sci-fi pic" is already giving a bit too much away (deal with it). It starts off as something of a road-trip/romance film, as Nic (Brenton Thwaites) - a bright young man suffering from the early stages of MS - hits the highway to bring his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to school, with fellow MIT student and friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) along for the ride. While Nic and Haley aren't somberly contemplating the end of their relationship, Nic and Jonah have vastly different things on their mind. Having been hassled by a hacker calling himself "Nomad," a menacing presence who taunts them with coded messages, the two decide to make a detour and find the mysterious person. Their search brings them to an abandoned shack in the middle of the desert, and before you can say "you guys really shouldn't go in there," something that can best be described as "otherworldly" happens.
What it is that happens can't be revealed here (indeed, it's not even revealed until well into the film), although when we see Nic next, he's evidently quarantined in some kind of antiseptic government facility. Unaware of the whereabouts of his friends, Nic's only contact is with a humorless doctor named Damon (played by the great Laurence Fishburne), who maddeningly refuses to answer any of Nic's queries while subjecting him to an assortment of tests. Soon he's beginning to question whether or not he's part of a nefarious experiment, or something even more unthinkable is going on.
THE SIGNAL is best in its most unnervingly enigmatic sequences, which reside mainly in the second act. The ominous nature of Nic's confinement and his subsequent attempts to suss out the motives of Dr. Damon and his crew of hazmat-wearing cohorts is when the movie hums with eerie dread; it's like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" as directed by Stanley Kubrick (both the show and the director are clear influences on Eubank). Thwaites makes for a particularly sympathetic hero, his agitation and anger well earned in the face of Fishburne's cool, calculating antagonist. Eubank infuses many of his sequences with an atmosphere of strangeness that percolates just under the surface, and while our rooting interest in Nic and his escape is a given, the need for a satisfying answer to this puzzle is even more crucial.
And when the answer does come, it comes in the form of a fairly predictable reveal that nevertheless doesn't disappoint because it is indeed the only conclusion this tale could be leading up to. Before we arrive there, Eubank engages us in a third act that is a bit heavier on action than what came before it, highlighted by some truly exceptional visuals and nifty effects. THE SIGNAL is almost like a different movie in each of its three acts, each one bringing with it unexpected touches and twists.
Sometimes Eubank gets a little too arty for his own good. Flashbacks of Nic's days without MS intrude often and without much purpose, other than to highlight David Lazenberg's beautiful photography, while the director leans on slow-motion to hammer home the dramatic import of scenes several times too many. But that doesn't diminish the evidence that Eubank is obviously a name to be watched from hereon, especially if THE SIGNAL is only a hint of what's to come.