The Signal is the kind of twisty science-fiction story that must have been written backward, the same way a mystery novelist might reverse engineer a whodunit. Did the film’s masterminds, writer-director William Eubank and co-writers Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, conceive of the final shot first, and then figure out how to get there? Every element is in service of the endgame, a big reveal calibrated to blow craniums wide open. And just about every scene is either a piece of the puzzle or a calculated mislead. Watching a movie like The Signal, a viewer has two options: She can either play detective, trying to outpace the characters by “solving” the story before they do. Or she can surrender to the mystery, confident that everything will fall into place eventually. Unless the twist itself is monumentally shocking, however, both viewing strategies tend to result in disappointment. Strong sci-fi grapples with its premise instead of concealing it.
It’s tempting to award The Signal points simply for not adopting the lucrative, inexpensive perspective of a cheap digital camera. This could have been a found-footage movie—which is to say, it could have been worse. The film begins with a road trip, following three college friends as they drive across the country from MIT to Caltech. Haley (Olivia Cooke) is transferring to the latter, a move that her boyfriend, Nic (Brenton Thwaites), is choosing to read as a kind of soft breakup. (A former star runner, he’s in what seems to be the early stages of MS, and fears that Haley is getting out while the getting is good.) During the awkward pilgrimage, the students receive taunting texts from Nomad, a skilled hacker whose previous pranks nearly got them expelled. Jonah (Beau Knapp), the geeky third wheel along for the ride, traces the stranger’s IP address to a secluded outpost in Nevada. One detour and close encounter later, Nic wakes up to find himself in quarantine, the unwilling test subject of hazmat-wearing scientists. But is there more to his predicament than first meets the eye?
The short answer is “yes.” To supply the long answer would involve disclosing the variously predictable secrets the film has up its sleeve, and hence depriving it of its reason for existing. Looking past the spoilable upshot, The Signal has qualities to recommend: There’s Laurence Fishburne as the lead researcher, shielding his motives behind an unnervingly ambivalent demeanor, and character actress Lin Shaye, who shows up for a couple of terrifically creepy scenes, her chitchat and amused cackle sounding just a touch less… normal than they’re supposed to. And Eubank, in his second turn as director, makes a presumably modest budget count, commissioning believably sterile production design and staging a couple of nifty special-effects sequences. Yet the movie never becomes truly involving—mostly because it’s hard to get wrapped up in a narrative when you can’t shake the nagging feeling that the rug under your feet is being tugged. The Signal turns out to be all punctuation, like a sentence composed of nothing but a long ellipses and an exclamation mark.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can’t reveal in our review, visit The Signal’s Spoiler Space.