I spent the last 20 minutes of William Eubank's intimate sci-fi thriller The Signal with my jaw hanging open. The movie's a slow burn that keeps its characters in the dark about what the hell is happening to them. Eubank's greatest feat is that he keeps the audience in the dark, too (or at least, this member of the audience). And then, when there is light, the movie explodes like a fireworks display. It's bright, exciting, and from moment to moment, unpredictable.
That is all I think you should know about this movie. Not knowing is crucial to your enjoyment of it, a point that was only reinforced during my second viewing, which was a relative slog. When you know where it's going, The Signal takes too long to get there. When you know that the curiosities don't amount to much, that the explanation for everything is simpler than the red herrings suggest, The Signal reveals itself as tedious.
The less you know about this movie, the better. If you're interested at all, I hope you stopped reading before the last paragraph. I'm not going to spoil anything to any great extent below, but you only get to enjoy this movie once, and I suggest doing so.
The plot concerns Nic (up-and-coming eye candy Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Oliva Cooke, who you may recognize as the oxygen-tank-toting Emma on Bates Motel), and his friend Jonah (Beau Knapp). Nic and Jonah are MIT students that a hacker familiar to them pings as they drive across the country. They decide to track him down and, in a hand-held scene reminiscent of the climax of The Blair Witch Project, stumble into an abandoned house. They are abducted by what might be an alien and wake up in what seems to be a hospital, where they're being held. Their main handler Damon (Laurence Fishburne) asks many questions and tells them very little. Frustration ensues, an experimentation plot is revealed, an escape is inevitable.
A lot here will remind you of other things you've seen: a conspiracy similar to that of Dark City, bodily mechanization that's like Akira, a decoy town of not-quite-right people like Alexandre Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Eubank tempers this with more derivation, some overly meditative, Malick-esque slow-mo slices of life as they were before this whole mess began—a footrace, a carnival. Nic and Haley are shells of humans whose stock conflict—she's moving away for a year, he wants to breakup—only serves to make them less remarkable…until they become utterly extraordinary.
Eubank does an excellent job of confounding for over an hour straight before exploding the film's dazzling climax all over the screen. (I was reminded of Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go here, and how that movie didn't even attempt to maneuver the knowing/not knowing aspect of its source material, Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name. The Signal does much better.) But the the thrill of The Signal is not in the journey but the arrival. As one seemingly insane female stranger tells Nic and Haley as they attempt to get their bearings after escaping from the research complex, "Just push from the inside out." It's not so crazy, after all.