The Signal (2014) — A true scifi mind bender

“They’re testing us, Nic. Like little rats.”

ZombieDog’s rating: Solo late night experience that wine or weed would enhance.

ZombieDog’s review: Out of all the genres of film, scifi is my favorite by far. Scifi movies from the ’60s and ’70s haunt me in ways that define me as a person. Movies like Soylent Green, 2001, and Andromeda Strain molded this young boy’s mind — one who was staying up much later than he should have been.

True scifi is rare; generally what we get is scifi action or scifi horror. Neither one contains hefty bites full of science fiction. Mike Stoklasa from Red Letter Media says that “True scifi is slow and dull.” While I don’t believe this is a hard and fast rule, I believe it is generally true because of the type of movie that we’re talking about. We’re dealing with the edge of the known and the limits of our understanding. By the nature of these aspects, finding ways of representing them visually or in storytelling form becomes increasingly difficult. Difficult… but not impossible.

The Signal is a 2014 movie that shows us that the indie film scene is alive and well. Its director, William Eubank, who later directed 2020’s Underwater, plays with a variety of styles and emotions to lure us into a surreal world.

We are introduced to Nic, Haley, and Jonah, who are on a cross-country road trip to take Haley to college in California. Nic and Jonah are already enrolled at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and have recently encountered a hacker calling himself Nomad. The hacker broke into MIT computer systems, including Nic’s and Jonas’, destroying any data encountered. We are instantly introduced to a serious hacking vibe with a revenge motive attacked to it.

To further complicate matters, we find out that Nic and Haley are dating — and that their relationship is on the rocks. The trip to California is more than just a courtesy; it is a way to say goodbye to Haley. Throughout their journey, Nomad is constantly harassing them, showing off his ability to capture their location via computer webcam or traffic cam. In return, Nic and Jonah try to pinpoint Nomad this whole time when they finally get their clue to his location. So our main characters figure turnabout is fair play and decide to visit their tormentor.

They arrive at Nomad’s “house,” which is nothing more than an abandoned trailer in the desert. Not willing to accept defeat, they decide to investigate. This is where the movie starts to go off the rails and we get to see the true skill of William Eubank when something happens at the trailer. This is really the first point in the film where the director starts messing with our perceptions. There’s a heavy dose of deception going on, which is what makes the movie good. The very odd nature of this film is that whatever is taking place it seems different than what is on the screen.

Nic wakes up tied to a hospital bed. The attendants are wearing biohazard suits and we’re not exactly certain who they are or what’s going on. They are prisoners in this facility, yet the doctors are extremely polite. As time progresses, those doctors start to conduct experiments and it starts to appear iffy what’s happening. Damon, played by Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), begins his questioning of Nic. This right here becomes the heart of the film. Without a doubt, we can see elements of Fishburne’s Morpheus character combined with a much more sinister motive.

At a point, we realize that not only have our characters changed — but the entire world is changed into the surreal. The movie itself is an exercise in constant misdirection, sure, but even that becomes questionable because we’re not even certain what is happening when the end is revealed. This is a true quality of decent scifi films.

This Signal is far from perfect. These are three young actors undoubtedly at the beginning of long careers, and when you add the presence of Fishburne, you have some interesting late-night entertainment. It stumbles noticeably in the third act, but the reveal does help considerably. It is without question worth a watch, but you should be ready to forgive a few things.

The main reason that I like movies is that from time to time if they can give you wonderful concepts to think about. Science fiction is truly one of the best sources for ideas that can last for days. One of the first movies ever made was a a scifi film. A Trip to the Moon (1902) is flat-out amazing and pushed the limit of the emerging technology of film to its limits. A hundred-and-twenty years later, we are still pushing the boundaries of what is achievable with film and storytelling. Don’t be afraid of a little bit of “slow and dull” — the trip is almost always worth the price of admission.

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