Thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can’t reveal in our review.
Anyone still catching up with Dan Harmon’s brilliant new animated series, Rick And Morty, should just click off this page, as I’d hate to inadvertently spoil one of the show’s best episodes. But here’s the thing: I spent maybe half of the running time of The Signal suspecting that I was watching a less clever, humor-deprived version of “M. Night Shyam-Aliens!” And sure enough, The Signal builds to a final reveal—in the final shot, no less—that’s basically identical to the plot of that episode: The heroes are trapped in a giant simulation of reality, running around a phony town within an alien spacecraft and encountering artificially intelligent “locals.” (In this case, they’re robots, not holograms, though the illusion is only marginally more convincing.)
Now, I’m in no way suggesting that The Signal ripped off Rick And Morty—the episode aired exactly one week before the movie premiered at Sundance—or that Rick And Morty introduced the idea of imitation realities. (Like a lot of the show’s sci-fi plotlines, this is one is familiar enough to be called a trope or even a cliché.) But “M. Night Shyam-Aliens!” doesn’t just shrewdly spoof big-twist storytelling techniques—it also masters them. What’s cool about the episode is the way Harmon reveals to the audience what’s going after a few short minutes, so that he can then explore the comedic and dramatic possibilities of the premise. The Signal, by contrast, wants to do nothing more than drop a few jaws. It waits until literally the final moment to reveal everything, its hero having broken through the outer barrier of his fake kingdom, like Jim Carrey at the end of The Truman Show. It’s a good special effect, him gaping at the “real” world before the credits roll. But it’s just a twist, nothing more or less.
And the way The Signal reveals a few other details is a little groan-worthy. When Nic discovers, for example, that his real legs have been replaced with metallic ones, it’s after weeks of having apparently not looked under the blanket laying on top of them. (He does check for his penis, which is pretty funny.) And how does Nic figure out that Laurence Fishburne’s character, Damon, is the one pulling all the strings? Why, by reversing the letters in his name to reveal that he’s actually… NOMAD, THE HACKER THAT DREW THEM OUT TO THE DESERT. Come to think of it, “M. Night Shyam-Aliens!” would be a pretty good alternate title for The Signal…