The Signal feels like a muddled mixture of several different movies, with elements of a YA dystopia, a road trip coming-of-age flick, a teen found footage horror film, a Brave New World/conspiracy sci-fi thriller, and even a dose of superhero tropes. Somewhere in the grab bag is a really good movie.
And it almost works anyways, but for the most part it’s confusing, the all-important mystery shrouding the actual movie itself.
We start on the road, with best bros Nic Eastman (Maleficent‘s Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah Breck (Super 8‘s Beau Knapp) driving Haley Peterson (Bates Motel‘s adorable Olivia Cooke) across the country to California. Nic and Haley are together, but Nic isn’t the same since a track and field accident left him permanently in crutches (à la Junior from Breaking Bad). He’s upset, angry, confused and now his girlfriend is leaving him for a year. We never get a reason why, other than knowing she’ll be gone for that long. I’m assuming she’s studying there, and I guess it doesn’t matter, but it seemed weird not to know. Either way, Nic doesn’t want to hold Haley back, while simultaneously afraid to let her go.
This by itself could be a potent teen romance, but it’s mostly an excuse to get them across the country. That’s because Nic and Jonah are hounded by Nomad, a mysterious and accomplished hacker who took down several MIT servers, including Nic and Jonah’s personal one. Nomad persistently sends them cryptic and foreboding messages to goad them, and is able to hack Haley’s computer and watch the trio from their hotel room. It’s disturbing, but Nic is going to leave it alone, until after he and Haley have a row. Jonah’s there to be the third wheel and to get Nic and Haley in trouble, and Nic agrees that they should track Nomad and his signal down.
In a bit of horror movie logic, the trio arrive at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert. Instead of turning around, they leave Haley in the car (of course), and see what’s out there…and discover that Nomad isn’t exactly human, and they’re attacked. If this was a straight horror movie, it’d be over in about 30 minutes.
Instead, Nic wakes up in a stark-white laboratory, being tended to by an inquisitive and suspicious Dr. Wallace Damon. Damon’s played by Laurence Fishburne, and his soothing, still voice and Morpheus persona is perfect as a mysterious and cryptic scientist. We only ever see Damon’s face, as he’s always in a giant white hazmat suit, because they believe Nic and company have been infected. Considering Nic’s physical changes, they’re exactly right. We’re led to believe that Damon is part of the U.S. government, safeguarding the country from diseased agents, but something doesn’t add up.
It’s obvious that Dr. Damon is not who he says he is, and Nic, Jonah and Haley must make a break for it. They find that the fish tank they’re in is much bigger and dangerous than they first thought, and the science fiction mind $%&@’s come hailing down. Along the way, Nic and company meet a few other lab rats in the fish bowl, including an unsettling and terrific Lin Shaye (Insidious) as Mirabelle, providing the most indelible and disquieting moments in the entire film.
The film’s effects are impressive considering the budget, but in many ways, the movie ends where I feel like it should begin. The Signal spends the entire running time hiding its true purpose and world for the end of the movie twist, and it’s still not all that surprising, even if it is cool. The Signal is entertaining, blessed with a talented and appealing young cast, but it’s not as deep or transcendent as it wants to be.