"Yeah, I was sitting on my couch watching it and getting more ticked off by the second."
Do you realize the last SIXTEEN movies I've watched have been horror movies? 17 if you count David Fincher's Gone Girl, which I saw by sneaking into the theater in a lowered hat and a trenchcoat thanks to their oppressive “no flesh eaters” policy. Ironically, Gone Girl was scarier than all over those movies combined and multiplied by ten, but we'll get to that when it comes out on home video. Regardless, I am BURNT THE HELL OUT on horror so it's time for some variety on this site.
As a reward to myself for enduring a month of nothing but Hellraiser movies, I'm going to review a good movie. At least I hope it's good, it sure looked amazing from the trailer I saw. The movie in question is The Signal, the second feature film from writer/director William Eubank. Like a lot of directors, he got his big break making music videos and transitioned it into a film career where he has become known for having a very distinct visual style.
I don't really know anything about the film's plot, but that's undeniably the best way to enter an abstract looking story like this one promises to be. Let's try and erase the Godawful atrocity that was Hellraiser: Revelations out of our eyes and minds, because it's time for A Ghoul Versus William Eubank's The Signal!
The film opens with three friends on a road trip across America: Nic, his girlfriend Haley and his best friend Jonah. Nic is played by Brenton Thwaites, a relatively new actor with his star on the rise thanks to a KILLER 2014 where he starred in Oculus, Maleficent, and the Giver. Damn, does this guy ever sleep? Haley's actress Olivia Cooke is another workaholic who, in addition to this film, also starred in the horror films the Quiet Ones and Ouija... the movie based on a Hasbro board game. Scratch that, the SECOND movie to be based on a board game after 2012's baffling Battleship. I'm not counting 1985's Clue because that was fucking awesome, but before you even ask, yes they're trying to remake it. Sigh.
Cooke did all of this while co-starring on A&E's SUPERB TV show Bates Motel, the prequel to the film Psycho. Get used to reading about these actors folks, we're going to be seeing them A LOT when I get to all of those films because I own every single one of them and WILL be buying Ouija on release day. The third actor, Beau Knapp, isn't as high profile as the others, his biggest role being director J.J. Abrams 2011 sci-fi film Super 8.
One night as they sleep in a motel room, Nic gets a harassing text from someone called “Nomad”, waking Jonah up because this is an ongoing thing. We learn from their conversation Nomad hacked the MIT servers and blamed it on our leads, almost getting them expelled. When they threaten to expose the hacker he sends them a video of themselves in the motel room, Nic realizing he's hacked into a laptop sitting on the bed and is watching them.
Nic and Jonah hop on their laptops and start doing... something that involves a LOT of l33t speak. Do they still call it that? I don't understand a word of it, but it does feel a LOT more genuine than most Hollywood films when the hackers start typing a million keys a second and spout bullshit. The result of this is they're able to find Nomad's address, which is in Nevada. Since they'll be passing through there on their way to California, they plan to pay him a little visit. Haley, who is quite obviously the voice of reason, tries to talk Nic out of it but Jonah plays the devil on his shoulder and overrides her.
We learn the purpose of this trip is Haley is transferring from MIT to Caltech, which Nic is less than thrilled about and has begun to distance himself from his girlfriend. When she confronts him about this, he brings up his worsening muscular dystrophy and how he doesn't want to be a burden to her. They break up, Haley throwing a necklace Nic gave her off a cliff. Yikes, this is going to make for one HELL of an awkward rest of the trip. They head to Nomad's address, finding it to be a small decrepit house in the middle of nowhere. Finding the door wide open, Nic and Jonah enter the house to investigate, Jonah bringing his camcorder along to record everything and give us a preview of the third Blair Witch movie you just know some producer is DYING to get rolling.
Seriously, the movie shifts to a dimly lit Found Footage style for this scene, complete with an homage where Nic finds Jonah sitting in the corner of a room not moving. This turns out to be Jonah just messing around, but WOW did this take me out of what was going on. The main floor is empty so they head to the creepy basement because they're either the bravest guys I've ever seen or the stupidest. Before they can search the area they hear Haley screaming from outside, running out to find the car empty and the radio playing a strange gibberish. Shining their flashlights around they see her out in a field around the house, where she VIOLENTLY flies into the air like a rag doll. HOLY SHIT! As they start running towards her bright lights flood the area and things fade to black. Nic wakes up in a wheelchair, being pushed by a man in a white haz-mat suit into an equally white room.
Another haz-mat wearing man enters the room and it's Laurence “I'm One Of The Coolest Motherfuckers Alive” Fishburne! He places an ancient cassette recorder on a table in the room and has a seat across from Nic, pulling out a notepad. He introduces himself as Dr. Wallace Damon, the head of the “transition team” that will be helping Nic. Damon asks Nic about his encounter with “the signal”, but Nic is more interested in why he can't moved his body. Damon ignores the question and tells Nic he's made contact with an Extraterrestrial Biological Entity and is wearing the suit because Nic might be contaminated.
We cut to later as Nic is being wheeled through a hallway, passing room after room of workers ominously scrubbing down walls coated with strange fluids. They pass a room with Haley asleep in bed, Nic asking the man pushing him to stop but is taken back to Damon instead. Nic tells him about his history with Nomad, Damon showing him the video that Jonah shot. He pauses it on a tree outside of the house, where a very X-Files looking alien's face can be seen peeking through the branches. Yes, I rewound to that scene but you can't see the alien there. Damon quips they definitely weren't pursuing a hacker.
Nic is taken back to his room, where he learns Jonah is in the next room over as they're able to communicate through an air vent. They don't get to talk for very long before Jonah has to leave for some reason, making an odd comment about how he can't believe Nic is in the vent. Later, Damon has Nic run through some tests identifying colours and shapes as we see Damon is kind of a dick the way he treats Nic. He's not all bad though, because he does briefly let Nic see Haley, who has been in a coma since her impromptu rendition of getting punched into the atmosphere by Superman.
In the meantime Nic and Jonah work on an escape plan out of the complex, Jonah sounding like his conditioning is worsening while Nic's is getting better. Rather odd they're not SHOWING us Jonah, isn't it? No time to speculate on that now though, because the next scene is Damon and his team of scientists experimenting on a cow. No, not Bessie! Before they get too far though an alarm goes off, the intercom announcing “the subject” has escaped. A couple of the scientists, who were wheeling Nic to his next test, wheel him into a room in a panic and lock the door until the alarm stops.
As he's taken back to Damon, we can see the hallway has massive scorch marks on both sides. He inquires about this but once again gets no answers, going on a rant about how easily he and Jonah could take this place down thanks to the scientist's incompetence. That's when Damon drops the bombshell that Jonah isn't IN the complex and has been missing since Nevada. Well, shit. Nic figures this is probably a good time to escape, so when the coast is clear he kidnaps Haley by tying her wheeled bed to his wheelchair and heads for the clearly marked exit.
Things probably aren't what they appear because we see scientists walking past this oddly hilarious visual without a reaction, almost like he's invisible. Or maybe it's just a case of “not MY job, assholes!” because other scientists show up and grab him just as he's almost home free. The next shot is Nic waking up in a bed with Haley across him, now out of her coma. They exchange some words before she falls asleep, Nic trying to wake up up but the scientists in the room stop him. He fights them off and ends up falling out of bed, finding his legs (which have been covered by a blanket this entire act) are now ALIEN ROBO LEGS. Okay, how did he NOT notice this until now? He's been here for at least a few days if not longer, didn't he ever once need to use the bathroom or did the aliens give him a robo digestive system that doesn't produce waste? After a laugh out loud scene where checks to make sure he doesn't have a robo penis, he begins to freak out badly. Damon, who has been watching all of this through one way glass, comes on the intercom and tells him to calm down. Yeah, good luck with that doctor.
After learning how to use his new legs, Nic KICKS THE GODDAMN DOOR off its hinges and wheels Haley out into the hallway and back to the exit. He makes it on the elevator out of the complex, Damon warning him he can't guard him from “them” if he leaves. Nic tells him to cram it with walnuts and shuts the doors. The elevator takes him to a massive sewer tunnel, Nic following its graffiti covered walls to the surface where he emerges in a desert. Haley wakes up in the fresh air, Nic carrying her to the road where they hitch a ride with a very bizarre old woman. And by bizarre, I mean BATSHIT FUCKING CRAZY. If she isn't revealed to be an alien, I'm going to be very disappointed.
Crazy Old Woman is played by the magnificent Lin Shaye, who has been kicking ass since the 1970s with memorable roles in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and is currently a co-star of the mega popular Insidious franchise. She also had a role in Ouija with Olivia Cooke, so that'll be like a Signal homecoming when I get to it. She drops them off at a truck stop, telling Nic to remember to “push from the inside out”. This is one of the weirdest things I've ever seen, and I've seen David Lynch's Inland Empire.
Nic has Haley sit on a truck while he goes to get some help, but she seems REALLY out of it. She hasn't said anything since her rescue which I'd like to chalk up to the massive amount of drugs probably still in her system, but after the whole Jonah reveal I'm not trusting anything this movie is showing me. She hasn't even questioned how he's able to walk without his crutches for crying out loud! Nic enters the bar and tries to use the phone, but it's down because even though this is an independent movie it's STILL a movie.
Things only get worse and more movie-y as a news broadcast pops up on the TV reporting Nic and Haley's escape. Fortunately for Nic none of the patrons in the bar seem to notice this, but unfortunately for Nic he sees the truck Haley was on start driving away. He's able to chase the speeding truck away thanks to the power of his new legs, jacking the truck with an assist from Haley who pulls the trucker's own gun on him. They drive down the highway, only to find it ends in a gigantic crevice. Oh shit Nic, I think you're in Silent Hill. RUN DUDE RUN!
We see what Damon's up to as he mobilizes a strike force to track down his escaped patients. They question Crazy Old Woman, who has only gotten MORE insane since we last saw her as she begins to babble a whole bunch of nonsense until Damon takes out a gun and shoots her. Yeah, I don't blame him. She was scaring the living fuck out of me too. Nic and Haley try a different route, finding a deserted tourism center they decide to stay the night at until they can figure out their next course of action. Haley grows more and more detached, telling Nic she can hear a sound that he can't hear.
That night we see Damon's men arrive at the center, Nic hearing them and goes to hide with Haley in the center's kitchen. Only we see this was the classic misdirection trick, as Damon is in a completely different building. He's in the trucker's house, the two seeming to know each other as Damon addresses him as James. The trucker is now out of his mind as well, trying to shoot Damon with a shotgun but it won't work. Damon's gun does work however, and he puts a bullet through James. This was a very strange scene in a movie that is growing more surreal with each passing moment. Time's getting short, can it pay ANY of this off?
So what was the noise Nic heard? Why, it was our old friend Jonah, now slightly crazed and wearing a stolen haz-mat suit of his own. Nic put's Haley to bed, noticing she has an alien implant on the base of her neck. Jonah reveals his theory about what is going on, based off a numbered tattoo that all three share: 220.127.116.11. This adds up to 51, so he believes they're being held at the famous Area 51 government base/alien conspiracist heaven. To prove his point, he shows Nic how everything in the kitchen is actually fake.
Nic doesn't want to believe all this, but is silenced when Jonah shows off his new body modification: ROBO ARMS! The next morning the three board the truck and take the only other possible road out of the area, which is blocked off by a heavily armed security checkpoint. Jonah tries to bluff his way through by impersonating a scientist, but this all goes to hell and the guards deploy a concrete column that halt the truck from advancing. Jonah hops out of the truck to sacrifice himself so his friends can escape, punching THOUGH the column and allowing them to drive off. He's not done there though, as he starts doing some Incredible Hulk-like ground pounds to stop the rest of the soldiers. BAD. ASS.
The others drive on only to be stopped by another roadblock, this one headed by Damon. They try to drive around but the soldiers deploy spike strips that causes the truck to crash. Nic wakes up on the highway across from Haley, who mouths “I love you” as they reach out and hold hands. Scientists arrive and load her onto a helicopter, Nic finding the necklace he thought she threw away in his hand. He gets up to try to save her, but Damon informs him it's too late and the chopper is to far away. A strange siren like noise sounds out in the sky, which seems to surprise even Damon. The scientist delivers these words:
“Take a look at yourself, Nic. The perfect integration of human will and alien technology. Our finest achievement.”
Ignoring this, Nic just kind of stares blankly at Damon until he notices his name on the front of his haz-mat suit. “Nomad?”, he asks. SON OF A BITCH! SON. OF. A. BITCH. How the fuck did I miss that?! Did they really just do that? Did they REALLY just hit us with a “the bad guy was hiding in plain sight the entire time with his name spelled backwards” plot twist?!? Oh my God, this is some Encyclopedia Brown shit right here. I almost think I should just stick to reviewing Michael Bay movies if I wasn't smart enough to catch this.
Damon confirms he is Nomad, and Nic starts to get aaaaaaaaangry. Not as angry as I am right now, but it's up there. Something I haven't mentioned yet because they're almost completely pointless, the entire time the film has been flashing back to events from Nic's life before his muscular dystrophy. He was a cross country runner, and numerous times we see him running through a forest until he hits a river and can't run any further. This is the payoff for those, as the film begins to parallel Nic stuck there to where he's stuck now.
Clenching his fists, he begins to scream, which in turn causes his legs to start glowing. And then he starts running like the motherfucking Flash, right THROUGH a car which leaves it a flaming mess. He runs down the road and across a bridge, easily outrunning the soldiers shooting at him because he's nothing but a blur. And then... he runs into a glass barrier to find himself in a darkly lit warehouse looking area. He looks behind him to see Nomad standing at the edge of the shattered barrier, the scientist taking off his haz-mat suit to reveal the entire back of his head is a series of alien mechanical parts. The camera pans out to show the rest of the dark area, which is a MASSIVE domed spaceship (numbered 18.104.22.168) about to land on what is presumably the aliens' home world.
Cue the credits.
This movie reminded me a lot of Inception, not in story or plot but the fact they both had mind blowingly AWESOME trailers that turned out to completely misrepresent what the movie was like. Inception's made it look like it was going to be an extravaganza full of trippy, larger than life special effects, it really wasn't though, but was instead a rather self contained and dramatic affair. This was not a bad thing, as Inception has become one of my all time favourite films and one I've watched more than any other film since 2010.
The Signal's trailer did the exact same thing, a crazy cool trailer that also turned into an intimate film that largely took place in a few rooms. Sadly it lacked Inception's well developed story and characterization, as Eubank was much more focused with visuals and mindfuckery for the sake of mindfuckery. He did a great job of this, but it all comes off very disappointing as it basically amounts to 90 minutes of “none of this really happened”.
It's all very straightforward when you look at it: the aliens kidnapped the three students, fused them with body altering technology, and subjected them to all kinds of psychological experiments. The big question here is WHY? Are they bored? Do they need human hybrids to fight some kind of war for them? If these aliens have intergalactic technology, why are they messing with a bunch of primitive humans? What exactly is their end game?
What's the deal with Crazy Old Lady and Crazy Trucker? The impression I got is they were failed experiments the aliens were keeping around in their fake truck stop, but again, WHY? If coming into contact with Nic and Haley made them get infected and start going crazy, why didn't they infect each other previously? We see the truck stop has at least half a dozen people, all of which should have been shot by Damon if the simple act of coming into contact with another hybrid spreads the contagion. There's also the strange cow scene which still makes no sense, since Nic wasn't there it wasn't part of his tests so what the hell were they doing? Jonah's comment about Nic being in the vent bugs me too, why would he think he was INSIDE the vent rather than just in the next room over? I also assume Jonah is the subject that escaped during the cow test, so why were the walls burnt instead of shattered?
I could really get nitpicky with things like why is Damon using a gun to kill people when it has nothing to do with the current experiment, but it wouldn't matter because this isn't that kind of a movie. One could also easily compare this to Prometheus in that it's a “the journey is what matters, not the destination” type of story. Which is fine if that's what you're setting out to do, but I really would have preferred more of the bombastic weirdness the trailer promised us if that was the case (which it TOTALLY is).
Despite how it might sound so far, I didn't hate this movie as it kept me VERY interested from the opening all the way to the credits, which is getting more and more rare with sci-fi movies lately. It has JUST ENOUGH in it to elevate it above the “style over substance” trend movies I always bitch about, even with the aforementioned priority on the visuals. The actors were all pretty good, even though we stopped getting to know them after they got abducted. No one really had much to say besides Fishburne's character, but a lot of that came with his line reading brilliance rather than the dialogue itself. I also want to mention how virtually every review for this film points out how Haley was basically a non-existent damsel in distress, which is true, but Eubank has said if he does a sequel to this he has bigger plans for her so we'll see if that ever goes anywhere.
This also had a great tone thanks to the the nonstop feeling of uneasiness the movie gave me, every scene you're just waiting for the shit to hit the fan and when it does it is GLORIOUS. Eubank is already one of the flashiest directors working today, and it's just a matter of time before he's given $200 million dollars to REALLY flaunt his skills. Do not be surprised if you here he'll be directing a blockbuster Marvel or DC movie in a couple of years, because after James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy rocked the world I think Hollywood is about to start taking some major gambles on indie directors.
I'd give this a recommendation if you want to see a captivating thriller or a more cerebral take on sci-fi, with the requirement you do NOT watch the trailer and get your hopes up. I can definitely say I would have enjoyed this a lot more if my expectations hadn't been so high, and maybe in a few months when I get over how pissed I am that I missed the Nomad/Damon thing I might even give this a strong recommendation.