What begins as a techno-thriller about the pursuit of an elusive computer hacker takes a surprising turn into hardcore sci-fi territory in co-writer/director William Eubank’s The Signal. The first act begins with a trio of friends taking a road trip to California. When Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) discover a signal leading to Nomad, their computer hacker arch-nemesis, they decide to take a detour through Nevada to catch his wily ass. Nick’s girlfriend Hailey (Olivia Cooke) isn’t on board with the idea, but the two guys are determined to get revenge for some shenanigans Nomad pulled back when they were students at MIT.
Following “the signal” into rural Nevada and down a dirt road, the friends arrive at a decrepit shack deep in the woods. Director Eubank breaks out the Blair Witch Camera Kit for Nick and Jonah’s exploration of the shack, a scene as tense and eerie as any horror movie. When the boys hear Hailey’s screams coming from their parked car, they rush outside…only to watch in awe as her body is jerked up into the sky like a rag doll. And suddenly The Signal has turned into a different type of movie altogether.
Smash-cut to a research facility. Nick wakes up in a wheelchair, attached to an IV drip, surrounded by men in biohazard suits. The Head Suit (Laurence Fishburne) tells Nick that he has come in contact with an E.B.E. (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity). Hailey is reportedly in a coma, Jonah was never recovered. Fishburne explains that Nick is being held for observation, in anticipation of any possible…changes. What follows is one of the best independent sci-fi movies since Duncan Jones‘ Moon.
Eubank gets some serious mileage out of what has to be a minimal special effects budget. Doled out sparingly, the CGI manages to make an impact when the movie needs it most. But there’s also a surprisingly moving human element to The Signal, and Eubank skillfully manipulates the tone to achieve the best possible result. Yes, he also cribs liberally from other, better sci-fi movies. But it’s obvious that Eubank is trying to create something different here, something memorable. While The Signal may not be perfect, it’s not a movie you’ll forget anytime soon.