Exclusive Review: THE SIGNAL (2014){0}

Science fiction cinema is often built directly on the foundations of the films that came before. That’s not to say that sci-fi screenwriters are thieves or plagiarists, but that there are themes, concepts, and messages that seem to pop up in “speculative fiction” since at least the 1930s. Even the best and most recent sci-fi films are clearly and openly beholden to earlier stories – which is why you see everyone on twitter yelling “copycat!” or “rip-off!” every time they notice something familiar in The Hunger Games, Snowpiercer, or Edge of Tomorrow.

So if you want to walk into the very cool science fiction thriller called The Signal (no relation to the much darker 2007 film of the same name) with a checklist, you’ll be able to spot bits and pieces that are reminiscent Chronicle, Dark City, and even Robocop. But if you simply love science fiction, you’ll more likely nod with a good deal of appreciation as you notice how coolly and confidently William Eubanks’ The Signal combines several familiar ingredients with a generous sprinkling of smart, clever, novel ideas.

The story starts out like an enjoyably simple horror flick: three nerdy but likeable college students notice a bizarre signal that has damaged their computer servers, and so they trace the source and promptly hit the road to investigate what they believe to be a stupid techie prank. Boy, are these three kids in for a surprise. Suffice to say that Nick (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Olivia Cooke) not only stumble onto the actual “signal,” but they wake up in a mysterious medical facility that is run by a placidly ominous Laurence Fishburne. Seems that poor Nick has become infected by this “alien” signal, and the government seems more interested in analysing the kid than in giving him any answers.

Maybe the mysterious signal comes from another planet; maybe it’s all a twisted government experiment, but one thing is certain: The Signal has a lot more meat to its narrative bones — and two or three admirably satisfying plot contortions – than we’re giving away in this review. At its best moments, The Signal is a stylish and intelligent mixture of science fiction, escape thriller, and mildly disturbing psychological thriller, but it also feels like a “young adult” movie that is not beholden to an eight-book literary source, and can therefore work outside the formula and deliver a few surprises.

It also doesn’t hurt that The Signal looks great, has three young actors who can actually, well, act, and offers frequent doses of Mr. Fishburne just when the movie needs them. Also the score is quite good.

Adequately creepy, flashy, and/or exciting when the story calls for it, but considerably more interesting for its quieter, craftier moments that combine hard sci-fi with earnest human emotion, The Signal is a pretty great “little” sci-fi movie that seems destined to find lot of (mostly youthful) new fans as it makes its way from cinemas and on to DVD and VOD.


Scott Weinberg