The Signal, directed by William Eubank, is a mind-bender of a movie that starts off as a dreamily-paced road trip with three college friends and then careens into a gripping sci-fi mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end.
Injured runner Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and his best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) across the country from MIT to California (Jonah calls her a “Caltech turncoat”). It’s made clear that Nic and Jonah are extremely bright and computer wizzes, even though Thwaites has the kind of pretty looks that makes you want to doubt that, somewhat unfairly. This is revealed first with a quick opening scene where Nic teaches a kid how to beat a claw crane arcade game, and then reinforced as we’re plunged into their communications with a hacker called Nomad, who destroyed some servers at MIT, including Nic and Jonah’s own.
In an attempt to expose him, the two of them track him from his ISP location (I think?), taking a reckless nighttime detour into the desert. They arrive at a forbidding-looking, abandoned shack and when the boys get out of the car, Haley says, in a calm manner that made me laugh, “Nic. You know that this is really stupid, right?” Their relationship has already been strained by Nic’s insecurity over his injury and his fear that he might hold Haley back; he uses forearm crutches and there are many flashbacks of him running, but it’s never clear exactly how he was hurt. We do see him fall in a race, but it doesn’t look very severe, and the significance of the repeated memory of his jogging path flooded with water is never really explained.
Haley and Nic have good chemistry and the dialogue in their near breakup discussion feels very real. But Haley waits in the car when the boys explore the shack and it’s her scream that sets the wheels spinning for the incredible twists of the plot. After running to find her, Nic blacks out and when he wakes, he is wheelchair-bound in a strange, cold facility like a hospital or lab. He is faced in an interrogation room by a spacesuit-clad Dr. Damon (the excellent Laurence Fishburne), who tells him that he and his friends were exposed to an EBE or “extraterrestrial biological entity”.
Of course, Damon won’t tell Nic almost anything else, putting him instead through pointless tests and wheeling him back and forth from a locked room, along a hall where he can see the unconscious Haley hooked up to an IV. He speaks to Jonah through the vent in his room and Jonah claims ominously that he believes something is happening to him inside, but then Damon causes Nic to doubt whether he spoke to Jonah at all, leading the audience to start second guessing whether any of this is real. There is some good attention to detail here – when Damon first appears, he sets down a desktop tape recorder to catch Nic’s answers, and I thought, “A tape recorder???” It seemed like some kind of a weird mistake, but Nic later makes a comment about how anachronistic the equipment is in the facility, in an angry rant about how he and Jonah could take the place apart, and it turns out to be a clue.
Things officially go off the rails when Nic discovers, after a failed escape attempt, that something has happened to him physically, but to go any further into the plot would be to give too much away. To say that things are not what they seem would be an understatement, and the directions the story takes from this point on constantly surprised me. It takes on a thrilling, comic book sensibility that I didn’t see coming.
I will say that Haley’s character definitely gets the short shrift, because she devolves into the helpless female that Nic drags around. There are several suggestions that something is happening to her as well, but it isn’t resolved, and that felt unfair. There is also some clunky exposition in the dialogue in the first half; the acting is not amazing but Thwaites especially gets better and better as it goes along. The ending leaves the audience with many questions (for instance, was that Jonah in the vent? I still don’t know), but that actually made me want to watch it again and pay closer attention. The loose ends may not all be tied up, but it’s a great ride all the same. The movie is in theaters starting tomorrow, June 13.