For a movie reviewer, having a favorite genre kinda feels like a parent having a favorite child; oh, they totally do, they’re just not supposed to talk about it. Well, just like your mom told your sister when you were out of earshot, if all other genres were out of the room, I’d totally tell indie sci-fi that it’s my favorite. Basically, I admit that I was at least half in the tank for The Signal before I went in. This is a movie laser targeted at my personal joy box.
The Signal isn’t quirky, it’s downright weird. Combining elements of Cronenbergian body horror, District 9’s believable-ish setting and the feel of Chronicle, writer/director William Eubank leveraged a small budget to great effect (and effects). Any film with this many WTF moments is insanely difficult to synopsize without spoiling things and thus taking some of the edge off. And this puppy is all edges, razor-sharp ones that are shaped like a labyrinth.
Here’s what I feel comfortable telling you: Nic (Brenton Twaites) is a college student with an unspecified degenerative medical condition that leaves him unable to walk without assistance. His girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), is moving from Massachusetts to California for one year due to a school opportunity. So Nic, Haley and their mutual buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp) are on a cross-country trip to get her settled in.
Nic and Jonah are MIT students who are being toyed with by a computer hacker who crashed servers at their school. Out of a misplaced sense of justice, and partially out of frustration at life changes, the dudes convince Haley to let them take a detour to confront the hacker … in the middle of the desert … at night … It does not go well. The next thing he knows, Nic opens his eyes to see Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who is not a comforting first sight. I can’t tell you anything past that; you’re just gonna have to see it.
Thwaites is crazy good. Kudos to whatever casting director figured out this young fella could pretty much carry an entire movie on his own. Whole chunks of the film are just Thwaites thinkin’ ‘bout stuff or trying not to go bonkers. Speaking of bonkers: Holy crap this thing goes weirdo-insane in the best possible ways. Too often, cinematic scifi is afraid to go that extra mile and take a creative (but super weird idea) to its most science-fictiony place. The Signal goes to that place, goes past that place and then sends a postcard that says, “Hey, did you see what I did there? Crazy, huh?”
Like anchovies and the music of the 1980s, hard-core indie sci-fi is an acquired taste. If you’re a connoisseur of this flavor, The Signal is an all-out savory feast. I look forward to long discussions with fellow cinema nerds about the significance of the shapes and colors in the film and the use of the term “agitated.” I realize how insanely dorky that is, but you judging me like that is the reason your mom likes your sister better.