Well, I loved this. A confident exercise in genre and genre misdirection that has the balls to invoke The Matrix, Close Encounters, and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. So, yes, it’s about aliens and a gigantic conspiracy and there’s a lot of white light bathing its clinical setups, and it cost not very much at all.
And the first bit of misdirection comes at the very first shot – a boy, a girl, his buddy, dappled sunlight, a piano on the soundtrack. It looks like we’re in torridly romantic Nicholas Sparks territory and we can only be minutes away from someone coming down with a terminal disease, especially as Nic, our lead, is on crutches, as a result of some not-entirely specified mishap – an injury? Cancer? Is he a soldier?
No, Nic’s a computer hacker, we find out early on, who along with his buddy Jonah has been delving into areas he shouldn’t and has got someone somewhere out in cyberspace very angry. None of this actually matters much, or seems to, because only a couple of minutes after this, the gooey proto-romance which morphed into a wannabe Matrix has changed again, into a haunted-house horror as the two guys break into a deserted house, and director William Eubank shows he’s also adept at making things spooky.
All a preamble. The film proper starts with Nic waking up from loss of consciousness in some aseptic facility, where everyone is dressed in hazmat suits and Laurence Fishburne is looming over him asking questions about “the signal”. The gist of it is that Nic, Jonah and Haley have been abducted by aliens, possibly, and are now OK, safe and sound, being looked after by the government, who are dressed like spacemen just as a precaution. Possibly, though explanations are thin on the ground. All the better.
This nightmarish vision of loss of control works better than I’m able to describe it partly because its cast is so good: former Home & Away heartthrob Brenton Thwaites is perfect casting as the fiercely intelligent MIT student Nic, a slightly more feral Channing Tatum with soulful eyes, a perfect profile, yet approachably blokey. A star, I’d be willing to bet. Underused Beau Knapp is also just right as Nic’s wingman, and Olivia Cooke brings what dignity she can to even less of a role for her, as the largely passive girlfriend.
Out on the ring road of stardom is Lin Shaye, who’s now become something of a go-to actor for wingnut roles (see Insidious), and does a magnificent few minutes as a local Christian fundamentalist who picks up the gang when they make a break for it.
As for Laurence Fishburne, he seems to relish rehashing a version of Morpheus, the glacial, slightly amused delivery, and the boom, of course the boom.
The entire film revolves around the true nature of Fishburne’s Dr Damon character, it becomes clear early on. And of course I’m not going to tell you whether he’s the good guy or bad guy. In fact to tell you any more than I already have – or that most of the film takes place in this facility, where there are a number of shocking reveals – would ruin everything. What I can say is that to that basic Matrix/Close Encounters/Cube mood board, you could add a bit of Attack the Block attitude and some of the dipshit conspiracy theorising of The Banshee Chapter, and that Nima Fakhrara’s Mogwai-esque soundtrack of Theremin squawks and aortal rumbles hugely contributes to the dread atmosphere that Eubank keeps alive right to the last minute.
And if there’s a lesson The Signal could teach other films like it – apart from “make sure you’ve got a good story to tell” – it’s to use special effects sparingly. That way they remain special. As is almost all of this film. Prepare to be amazed.
© Steve Morrissey 2014