Focus Features/Automatik Ent./Low Spark Films (2014) 97 min. PG-13
Screenplay: Carlyle Eubank, William Eubank & David Frigerio
Cinematography: David Lanzenberg;Editing: Brian Berdan
Production Design: Meghan C. Rogers; Set Decoration: Michael Flowers
Costumes: Dorotka Sapinska; Score: Nima Fakhrara
Stars: Brenton Thwaites (Nic), Olivia Cooke (Haley), Beau Knapp (Jonah), Laurence Fishburne (Damon), Lin Shaye (Mirabelle), Jeffrey Grover (Gas Station Clerk), Robert Longstreet (James), Patrick Davidson (Boy Playing Claw Game)
Nearly kicked out of college when falsely accused of hacking MIT servers, three friends head toward the West Coast. Angry over the degenerative muscular disorder that has reduced him to relying on forearm crutches, whiz kid Nic (Brenton Thwaites) has been drawing further and further away from girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) since he began losing control of his legs. He fears her cross country transfer signals the end of their relationship. Nic’s old track partner Jonah (Beau Knapp), a computer geek accompanying the couple on this road trip, traces an intermittent homing signal through the Southwest desert to its source of origin, where the indignant trio intends to confront the perpetrator really responsible for sabotaging their academic careers, a malicious internet lurker who goes by the handle NOMAD.
Coming across at the outset as a cautionary tale of the internet octopus, The Signal ends more closely akin to other paranoid, cerebral, I-think-therefore-I-am screen concepts, like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and The Matrix, complete with samplings from Blade Runner, Cabin in the Woods and maybe even The Hitcher thrown in for good measure. In addition, director William Eubank claims to have had Moon, Cube and The Twilight Zone in mind while making the movie and hired Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks editor Brian Berdan, with whom he had collaborated on his earlier, equally heady and overambitious Terrence Malick homage Love. Like many a green young director, the influences and inspirations that went into shaping Eubank’s aesthetic sensibility are in greater evidence than any recognizable, signature style of his own at this stage. Still the director, who wrote the story in collaboration with brother Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, has used his store of movie memories to patch together a reasonable facsimile of an exciting sci-fi thriller, and though this ambitious low-budget indie produced for $2 million created a buzz at Sundance, its modest pleasures occasionally suggest it would’ve been better served by being released in limited runs or even direct to video. It’s nice to have the choice of seeing sci-fi with a thought in its head in the midst of summer movie popcorn season, but placing this little sleeper on a big screen opposite big-budget Hollywood blockbusters is apt to set expectations too high, leaving curious viewers who chance to seek it out feeling let down, through no fault of its own.
I don’t want to give away the game the way they do the inner workings of claw machines at the beginning of The Signal, but suffice it to say, this opening metaphor clues us that what we subsequently see is all intended as part of an elaborate shell ‘game,’ a compelling diversion. The movie has been designed to give viewers the false impression that all they need is a criminally simplified blueprint, like the diagram Nic sketches onto glass of the toy machine’s internal logic, the cogs and wheels moving with deliberation along their unvarying grooves, to grasp the movie’s own grand design. That’s why this claw machine scene opens the film, to implant the idea in our subconscious that we’re not really seeing the big picture, though structurally it takes place later in the story line and is repeated nearly verbatim, only from an opposite vantage.
Australian actor Brenton Thwaites plays Nic but has been seen by far more moviegoers this summer as Prince Phillip in Maleficent. Hehas an unusually sensitive demeanor well-suited to the self- conscious, afflicted character he’s playing. But like the movie itself, he appears an indistinct pastiche of familiar faces we’ve seen in innumerable other films, so the entire time a viewer is watching him they’re apt to be experiencing the disconcerting sensation that they’ve seen him in something else, even if they never have. This sense, that he’s been stitched together out of the spare parts of other better established performers, Frankenstein fashion, may be meant to add to the movie’s mind-melding meta layering, or maybe not. Thwaites most comes across like a mix and match of the young Ethan Hawke, Chad Michael Murray from One Tree Hill and Max Therliot from A & E’s Bates Motel. And as his girlfriend Haley, little Olivia Cooke, who can usually be seen toting around her own oxygen tank on the same show, has been cast opposite Thwaites here, as if to make the allusion complete.
As the resident third wheel, Beau Knapp, the geekish convenience store clerk eaten by a different species of alien lifeform in Super 8, has finally found a role of substance, proving himself worthy of more than a walk-on. And Eubank has wisely balanced out his gifted roster of young talent with old pros like Laurence Fishburne, the film’s one name star, whose very presence allows The Signal to reference his Matrix legacy, appropriating those trippy cult movies into its overall design. Still, Fishburne is required to give an unvarying, blank-eyed performance so lacking in the kind of violent emotion he tries to talk Nic down from, he might be an abstraction. Better is Lin Shaye, the psychic from Insidious, who has reached that point in her career where she always seems a class act, her presence elevating whatever film she appears in, FDR: American Badass excluded. Arriving like an agent of divine intervention in a car decorated with religious iconography rather than the wheeled chariot of Ezekiel, humming hymnals and proclaiming with zealous conviction that there’s nothing to fear because we’re always being watched over, she adds an additional element of complexity and possibility to proceedings. We’re left to ponder whether the mysterious ‘watchers’ she refers to are angels, aliens or simply the ubiquitous Big Brother, who is able to hack into Nic’s laptop and send him a video feed of himself from his own computer cam, proving his all-pervading omniscience.
As in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel, from which The Signal drew clear inspiration, there is a similar buzzing drone whose purpose, it’s suggested, is to draw humanity to our ancestors from the stars or vice versa, pulling our progenitors back to earth. It could be the clarion call of the seventh trumpet heralding the rapture since, as in The Sentinel, The Signal also suggests that man’s idea of a God in the sky protectively watching over us and lifting us up into his heaven by means of vertical ascent, could just as easily be interpreted as alien abduction operating along the same lines with humans being yanked skyward by tractor beams rather than the beating of angel’s wings. The Signal’s penultimate point is that if aliens are as technologically advanced as all that, enough to have traversed the great distances separating the stars, they may as well be regarded as gods by insignificant mankind. Certainly The Signal, an advanced variation on the GPS tracker that leads these kids to their designated rendezvous point, NOMAD’s broadcast location, is the same beacon drawing Nic to those entities wishing to make contact. The Signal is a sound which only people in a similar state of advanced spiritual grace are capable of hearing and Nic has been deemed worthy of this celestial visitation for reasons directly related to the most vital part of his runner’s anatomy. Due to an unspecified muscular disorder, Nic has been progressively losing all feeling in his legs, leaving him with nothing to look forward to in his future but ultimate paraplegia and confinement to a wheelchair. He may have been brought into contact with this higher intelligence in answer to his silent prayers to be made whole again. What happens in The Signal is Nic’s personal fantasy, wish-fulfillment of the first order.
His legs are objectified, the way Jungle Julia’s were in Tarantino’s Grindhouse Presents, so tied up with his view of his own masculinity, the two concepts have become nearly indivisible in his mind. That he psychosexualizes them, equating the self-sufficient mobility they afford with his potency and power as a man, is made quite plain when his first thought, upon discovering what’s been grafted in place of his pins, is to peep down his shorts to ensure that there are no other unseemly bionic appendages jutting out from his southern extremities. Nic pushes himself too hard, past the point of endurance really, even refusing Haley’s innocent offer to help carry his coffee, because he wants to prove he doesn’t need to rely on anyone for support, that he’s still entirely self-sufficient. The imminent loss of his legs which has left him feeling increasingly impotent is the reason why he wants to break up, rather than hold Haley back. The prospect of becoming a dependent dead weight forced to live off a woman is mortifying to him.
Given The Signal’s open allusions to other sci-fi movies, as well as The Blair Witch Project and Chronicle, it seems fitting that Nic’s less than thrilled reaction to the alarming discovery that he now sports steel beams (“Damon, what the hell did they do to my legs.”), likewise invokes the classic King’s Row and Ronald Reagan’s similarly outsized response to waking up half the man he used to be, long before the future president went on to amp up America’s own Star Wars program during the ‘80s. Thanks to divine alien intervention Nic finds his weakening body morphed into the amazing bionic man, a cyborg comprised of machine-tooled parts. Half man but mostly metal, Nic is like a pirate swaying unsteadily on his two new peg legs, ingrown versions of his forearm crutches. Using his clodhopping stompers to kick down every obstacle in his path he’s a future forward, metallic variation on something out of Greek mythology, a goat-legged satyr or centaur from the waist down, neither animal, vegetable or mineral. With its strong comic book elements concerning the acquiring of superpowers, The Signal could be taken as the beginnings of a superhero franchise, The Flash retrofitted with heavy metal. And we’re glad that at least Nic now has a leg to stand on, proving himself the physical superior to even that big, intimidating trucker who tries to abduct Haley.
While what happens to Nic would seem to make perfect sense, when one tries to apply the same logic to friend Jonah who loses all feeling in his arms, the theory collapses. Akin to that claw machine, the mechanical guns dangling in place of his wings simply prove a hindrance, preventing him from exercising his greatest skill, banging away on a keyboard to access computer mainframes and interfaces, rather than augmenting his potential the way new legs do Nic. He can’t even type with those oversize paws, any more than it seemed practical for Damon to try to handle a pen while wearing huge, bulky hazmat gloves the size of oven mitts. If this super-intelligence is seeking to fuse the better part of machinery with human biology in order to create a superior specimen – fiber optically-enhanced man, it seems nonsensical to take away this super nerd’s primary source of power. Would it not have made more sense to give the bespectacled dork bionic eyes, complete with x-ray vision to allow him to see in the dark? And if these agents of divine intervention are in the business of mating machine parts to human men, as we see with the boys’ extenuating circumstances, what have they attached to Haley? The only glimpse we get is an embedded metallic implant at the base of her neck. Maybe test subjects are accorded outies and innies according to their gender.
The collaborative script wavers uncertainly on plot points like this, the sort that simply don’t jibe in the intuitive way one feels that they should. For instance, Nic’s extended interrogation sessions should play like intensified psychoanalysis, giving us the chance to pick his brain so that we have a better idea how to take what subsequently transpires. Certainly these face-offs seem designed to increase his general air of paranoia, as Nic’s doctor sizes him up and begins jotting down unfavorable observation notes about him before he’s even opened his mouth. Fishburne’s unflappable Damon, who keeps assuring Nic that he’s going to be just fine, that there’s nothing amiss with him, all from within the hermetically sealed safety of an internally illuminated hazmat suit, speaks in maddeningly even, becalmed tones that would drive anybody batty. Though the interrogators are meant to be trying to keep their captives calm, since only heightened emotions can set them off, activating their bionic powers like the Incredible Hulk, they might just as well be trying to push Nic off the deep end by planting the idea in his mind that the voice emanating from the air duct is all in his head. The movie has been so thoroughly inundated with conspiratorial assumptions, ingrained mistrust of a military-industrial complex meant to be run by a nonexistent shadow government, that the air of anxiety becomes vaguely amusing. Given Nic’s latent, suppressed hostility over what’s already happening to his body, which he has no control over, these assessments could have made for great, mordant comedy as they play off his anger management issues and lack of impulse control. But they haven’t been shaped to any real dramatic purpose and generally lead nowhere, eventually petering out.
Placing the overemotional Nic in a standoff with the emotionless Fishburne permits the moviemakers to assert that The Signal is about the tension between cognitive and emotional reasoning, hoping the pretentious claim will elevate their modest effort, raising it to the realm of high concept art. But what The Signal really traffics in is our primal aversion to amputation and body mutilation which has been exploited here for its horrific overtones, as it was in the days of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. And there’s no need for the movie’s makers to try deflecting attention from the fact that they’re reveling in that Grand Guignol tradition, as The Signal does with its main macabre shock, which is on the order of The Hands of Orlac. The prospect of being transfigured into something alien against your will, for some mad reason we can’t fathom is enough to set most viewers’ nerves on edge. Yet the rerouting of Nic’s circuitry, all his normal neurological and motor functions, has been conceived as something else altogether again. Rather than a monster, he’s meant to represent the perfect experimental fusing of human DNA with alien fiber optics, a space age superman. Nic has become the next stage in human development, the model of the future straight off the assembly line. Aesthetically displeasing though it may seem to find himself melded to two steel girders, making him look as though he’d been encased in an iron exoskeleton, Nic wakes up a better runner than he was before or could have ever hoped to become.
Nic mourns the loss of his legs to such a degree one would think his primary motivation in life was to be an Olympic gold medalist. In the romanticized flashbacks to happier times, we watch him running what appears to be a cross country marathon, but from what we gather he’s far from the sort of thick-headed jock whose entire life would be wrapped up in developing his body. He’s more mathlete than athlete, scribbling notes and scrawling equations and figures all over the walls, over everything, bathroom tiles and glass partitions, anywhere that affords his dry erase marker a clean surface, like a mad scientist whose inspired genius can’t be bound. He’s one enormous brain already, so we don’t understand why he so dreads the loss of his mobility. It hasn’t done Steven Hawking much harm. Nic may have lost the use of his stems but he still has overactive stem cells to fall back on, his brain rewired, freeing that dormant portion humans don’t normally use. His mind hopping like a pinball machine, the way he rambles off information, like an autistic savant, about antiquated technology, the operation of the Mickey Mouse military-industrial complex, and correlates shapes to colors during his motor skills test certainly makes him seem possessed of some EBE counterintelligence, though we never come to find to what purpose his heightened acumen is meant to serve. And it’s a stretch to accept that it takes this math major who carries a working calculator around in his head the entire film to figure out what Alucard means when spelled backward. And despite his super-intelligent computer brain, all his painstakingly laid escape plans are foiled when he fails to bring along any means of opening the sliding glass doors whose button he can’t reach from his wheelchair (which is why disability access is so important). He’s left trying to press the exit buttons with his plastic IV tube, which wilts like a flagging erection as his dream of liberation collapses and he’s dragged helplessly back to his imprisoning hospital room.
We’re meant to be made suspicious by Nic’s fleeting alien contact, left to wonder if he’s the alien himself or if it’s his captors who don’t seem quite human. The ambiguous script has been structured in such a way that all these possibilities present themselves at some point, leading our idle speculations a merry chase. The government agents certainly resemble astronauts in their gleaming, inhuman hazmat suits, implying the kids have been exposed to some sort of biohazard, and the dialogue has been sprinkled with the fleeting suggestion that they may have been infected with alien embryo, like something out of Ridley Scott. Indeed, a great deal of the movie toys with our knowledge of sci-fi cinema past, particularly Alien, Blade Runner and the more recent Prometheus. When Jonah tries to get a lock on NOMAD’s geographic location and Nic tells him to type in something funny for instance, his line about ‘androids taking an electric sheep’ is a direct reference to the same Philip K. Dick story Blade Runner was adapted from. Making our way through the mish mash of sci-fi movies The Signal cites is like trying to thresh one’s way through cobwebbing in the brain. The free-form associations spark one another, but calling to mind so many familiar movies sets our minds off in too many wrong directions at once. It’s impossible to get our bearings, leaving us feeling much like the disoriented characters in the movie who can’t be sure which way is up or exactly where they are, though Area 51 makes for popular conjecture.
We begin to suspect for instance that all the references to Blade Runner are setting us up to accept that instead of an alien abduction, either Nic or the men holding him captive are actually androids, which isn’t exactly off-base, but is also only part of the truth. This automaton ambiguity is aided immeasurably by the appearance of diesel trucks in the desert portion, which may have been intended to put viewers in mind of Tranformers’ anthropomorphic automobiles which could flip flop between hunks of wrecking yard metal and the contours of human form. The characters in this artificial desert environment are like the rogue replicants from Westworld who become criminally insane when their batteries run low and downright lethal when they think their warranty is about to expire. Others are like the determinedly cheery Stepford Wives, caught on an automated loop when their circuit board goes haywire, their voice recordings getting snagged over the same words and phrases like a skipping record. The government considers itself to be serving the interest of public safety by terminating them, but because we can’t be sure who’s human and who isn’t at any time, they might just as well be systematically eliminating all the witnesses who have come in contact with the escaped fugitives, been exposed to the carriers or possess knowledge of the government’s nefarious strategy to dispose of them.
When Nic escapes the compound with Haley, it’s through some cylindrical, sewer piping that vaguely brings to mind the cerebral cortex from Being John Malkovich. It doesn’t appear dissimilar to that ventilator shaft he’s been speaking with Jonah through, and once it empties out, the hospital gowned detainees find themselves smack in the middle of the desert, so it’s anyone’s guess where they think they’re going to hide. Finding themselves hunted along the border, they might be illegal immigrants trying to make their way across. Marveling at the vastness of the American landscape, they’re in awe, finding it “so wide. I hope we can get across it.” The Signal threatens to become another epic journey of manifest destiny, an American trek West, the strangest couple-on-the-run flick since Starman. It’s astonishing that no one questions why Nic and Haley are running around in their skivvies, but that such odd things are treated as everyday sights in these parts only adds to the eerie, otherworldly air.
The ending is more M. Night Shyamalan than Rod Serling, and while having the rug pulled out from under us might have seemed enjoyably novel back in the ‘90s, after more than a decade of being done to death, it’s apt to leave viewers feeling gypped these days, as if they’d just wasted the last few hours of their lives. It’s a cop out, negating everything that’s come before, like the old ending where everything turned out to have been a ‘dream’ in order to let the scriptwriters off the hook for not being able to make any sense of their own plot. The Signal is actually sub-Sixth Sense because the gimmick ending doesn’t force us to reevaluate anything we’ve seen heretofore but rather discount it. Which is likely why The Signal ends like a movie, with more stars than there are in the heavens, to remind us it’s all just a story one way or the other, encouraging us not to get miffed. Breaking the fourth wall becomes Nic’s way of beating the machine (Eubank is referencing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave) and, having unplugged himself, when he looks back at the matrix he’s escaped, the effect is as if he’d just leapt from a movie screen, the projector still shooting a beam of light back toward it, playing with the idea of the story we, as the movie audience, have been watching and unquestioningly accepting as reality, just as Nic has the entire time. Still, despite its frequent flashbacks to things that might have happened or may only have been implanted in Nic’s mind to make him believe they happened, The Signal fails to satisfactorily explore the intriguing points it raises concerning the unreliable nature of perception and faulty memory.
If the aliens are projecting an entire, holographic world solely for Nic’s benefit, what is the purpose of showing the viewers things Nic himself couldn’t possibly be privy to, or have any knowledge of himself? This hologram should not exist outside his mind, anymore than the movie should exist outside of his first person perspective, if only to keep the audience as blinkered and off balance as he is himself. Such scenes seem to aesthetically violate The Signal’s own internal logic. It breaks the rules of its own game. And if all these events were drawn from Nic’s subconscious there’s no way for us to relate them back to his past since we know virtually nothing of him before we meet up in the desert, apart from what those fleeting flashbacks impart. Like a cowboy in some old Western, he might have materialized out of the past and have no future, though we find out what he’s running from (life without legs) and what he eventually runs smack into. We can’t know if all his memories were implanted in his mind or if his friends were real and if so, still missing. We can only wonder when the hologram actually began and how much of what we’ve been shown should be considered ‘real.’ Depending on viewer’s own perspective, whether one believes that his memories are genuine or false, one can’t even be sure that Nic ever even had legs before. What’s important is that he believes he did and is acting according to that belief.
The Signal feels like a half finished film in many respects. Its makers assume that leaving their brushstrokes evident and the questions they raise unanswered equates with being profound. This is the sort of movie that’s credited with being smarter than it is specifically because it leaves frustrated viewers with more questions than it answers. But only neophyte student filmmakers could mistake the obstinately obtuse for the legitimately profound. They believe they’re bucking the Hollywood system by rejecting classical narrative, laboring under the delusion that consciously letting their movie go slack when it should be pulled taut takes greater daring than crafting a more tightly structured script that deigns to wrap up loose ends. Or worse yet, maybe they purposely planned out the entire enterprise in this manner to leave their options open for a hoped for future sequel. While The Signal is quite satisfying on some surreal, subconscious level as Nic’s f*cked up wish-fulfillment fantasy, far too much material is left suspended in midair, with intriguing elements seemingly inserted as distracting red herrings. We never learn why the kids are dehumanized by being reduced to a number that’s stenciled on their arms like concentration camp survivors, leaving us to assume that they’re the chosen people. Though it’s speculated that the numbers stamped on them add up to ‘51’ portending their geographic location in the by now far from secret government facility at Nevada’s Groom Lake, no further attempt is made to explain the new tats or why they’ve been tagged. They might be the serial numbers of their manufacturer for all we know. The Signal never makes perfect sense, thrilling enough sensory trip though it may be. If Nic is in a hologram the entire time, why are the people who populate it then depicted as androids? If they don’t really exist at all in three dimensional space, it seems like unnecessary embellishment. If the aliens themselves are truly meant to be android, fusing their organic metal with human matter, who built them? And because I’m a bit dense, I never did get the scene with that tethered cow and the hurled chair, atmospheric as it was. There are other, even more inexplicable anomalies.
For example, The Signal includes more shots of hands holding objects than any movie I’ve ever seen, or maybe these close-ups just jump out more at me because every time Thwaites is displaying something to the camera, I’m wondering why his fingernails have been allowed to appear so filthy. Even after he’s been freshly washed up, scrubbed down and placed in a pressed, starchy new hospital gown they still look as though he’d been clawing up earth, which is amazing since the nails have been gnawed down to a nub leaving no cuticles for dirt to hide beneath. Since there’s no feasible reason for this it’s downright distracting. Certainly such visuals didn’t slip by the close scrutiny of former cinematographer Eubank. Prosthetics should have been used in their place, the way they were for the character’s pads. With that said, it must also be pointed out that Thwaites sports some of the most convincing cuts on his ears I’ve ever seen, even when held in graphically clinical closeup, to the point of being painful to look at, showing off the makeup artists or post-production visual fx crew, or whoever was responsible in a highly impressive light. The Signal should be commended as sci-fi with the germ of a thought, even if it does get tangled up in and strangled by a sea of umbilical connecting wires before it ever crystallizes into fully satisfying form.