There are two great risks to creating mind-fuck science-fiction: that nobody will understand you, and that the actual mind-fuck won’t add up to much. The Signal somehow falls into both traps. You spend a lot of the movie confused, but the great big reveals of its finale don’t feel very shocking at all. Yet it’s not a complete wash and, given the circumstances, that feels like an accomplishment.
It all begins simply enough. MIT students Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) decide, while driving cross-country with Nic’s girlfriend, “CalTech turncoat” Haley (Olivia Cooke), to track down a mysterious hacker named NOMAD who has been tormenting them. Meanwhile, Nic, who is now saddled with crutches due to MS, thinks back on the days when he could run freely through the woods, when he could stand before majestic, gently undulating forest streams, when he and the beautiful Haley were happy and in love and … wait, where was I? Right, the hacker. Anyway, the kids pinpoint NOMAD’s location to an abandoned cabin in Nevada filled with server racks. “You guys should just stop provoking him,” Haley says. And of course, she’s right. Before we can quite figure out what happened, Nic is waking up in a weird, antiseptic facility presided over by a hazmat-suited Lawrence Fishburne (once again going full Morpheus on us), Jonah has vanished, and Haley is in a mysterious coma. Where is NOMAD? Who are these people? And what’s this about an “EBE” – an “extraterrestrial biological entity”?
Much of The Signal involves director William Eubank cutting elliptically as Nic tries to piece together what happened and to save himself and Haley from their predicament. But all that storytelling hoo-ha seems to be masking the fact that there isn’t a whole lot going on. It’s not so much that nefarious things aren’t afoot — they are — but they’re not particularly unique or original. But the casual charm of the actors keeps us going. Even though they spend more time escaping rather than interacting, there’s real chemistry here between lovely, likable leads Thwaites and Cooke. The film takes place at a time when their relationship is on the rocks — when Nic has become more aloof than ever, allegedly thanks to his deteriorating physical condition — and we want to see them together. They have the same melancholy quality as the doomed lovers played by Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan in 2010’s sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go, a film The Signal occasionally resembles in mood, if not narrative particulars or quality.
Another plus: It’s a gorgeous movie. Director Eubank and cinematographer David Lanzenberg use the beautiful desolation of the landscape to heighten the otherworldly quality of the story, and they do a lot with a spare palette and relatively few characters. Indeed, while the lyrical flashbacks and montages to happier times often serve to pull us away from the main action, I found myself looking forward to them. It’s in such moments that The Signal connects, if it connects at all. Because the rest of it — from the specifics of our heroes’ escape to the designed-to-confuse dialogue to the allegedly big reveals of the finale — doesn’t feel of any real consequence. Well-shot and well-acted, The Signal is, at heart, a dumb movie gussied up to look like a smart one.