The Signal: Sundance Review

Beautifully executed, not-quite-satisfying sci-fi head-scratcher.

Three hackers traveling cross-country stumble into what may be an extraterrestrial encounter.

PARK CITY -- A glossier take on the recent indie trend of brainy, cards-close-to-chest sci-fi pictures that veers toward the mainstream near the end, William Eubank's The Signal is ultimately a lot less unusual than it appears. The story of three hackers whose cross country road trip is interrupted by mysterious forces is captivating for a long stretch, though, keeping viewers guessing about the nature of what has happened to these sympathetic youths. Focus Features should secure a generally positive response from genre audiences; arthouse reception may be less enthusiastic.

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Nic and Jonah (Brenton Thwaites, Beau Knapp) are MIT students engaged in an online altercation with someone called Nomad, who recently found his way onto their network and destroyed some servers. Though they're currently driving Nic's girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) from Cambridge to Caltech, where she's transferring for a year, they get a lead on Nomad's whereabouts and convince her to take a detour into the desert.

In a scene that plays like a horror film, the three find an abandoned shack with telltale signs of recent habitation. Before they can put clues together, though, strange things start to happen. We see Haley pulled up into the air, alien-abduction-style, and everyone loses consciousness. Nic awakes in what seems to be a secret hospital, unable to feel his legs and tended to by silent workers in hazmat suits.

A Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne) attempts to address his disorientation and anxiety, but is clearly holding things back. He will say, though, that the friends have encountered an EBE (that's "extraterrestrial biological entity," for people who think an "ET" isn't understood to be biological), that it's very dangerous outside this facility, and that all this secrecy is maintained for a good reason.

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Like us, Nic doesn't buy it, and he's impatient with being observed in a locked room while Damon rations out information. So he MacGyvers himself some escape strategies and starts moving this film away from less-is-more territory, toward something closer to action mode. Without giving the story's sometimes confusing surprises away, one can say that the film breaks free of the hospital, with Damon and company chasing Nic while he struggles to make sense of what he sees and to understand why his friends, with whom he reconnects, are behaving like whacked-out shadows of themselves.

There are golden moments during this mystery of transporting weirdness. Lin Shaye has a brief, standout appearance as a religious woman who hears noises in the sky and has lost her grasp on everyday idioms. And David Lanzenberg's cinematography is eye-pleasing even while we're trapped in bunker-like quarantine.

Throughout the third act, though, the cat-and-mouse game grows more conventional. One starts to suspect the film is a little less trippy than it seemed; that whatever big revelation awaits us may be inadequate to explain the action leading to it. That's more or less the case, though some sci-fi buffs will be satisfied with this tease that allows them to make up their own explanations.


Production Company: Low Spark Films, Automatik

Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne, Lin Shaye

Director: William Eubank

Screenwriters: William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio

Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Tyler Davidson

Executive producers: Richard Rothfeld, Peter Schlessel, Lia Buman, Stuart Ford, Neishaw Ali, Colin Davies

Director of photography: David Lanzenberg

Production designer: Meghan Rogers

Costume designer: Dorota Sapinska

Editor: Brian Berdan

No rating, 96 minutes