I have been talking about the movie The Signal for months now. The moment it hit Sundance and made an enormous splash I was ready to see it. The trailer looked epic. Fishburne looked awesome. The movie seemed to carry some tricky sort of malevolence deep inside it. The trailer seemed to have two different strains of truth occurring simultaneously… we have a love story and we also have this psycho-warfare strain. And from a distance, the two were very difficult to reconcile. But that was before watching the movie and seeing the two disparate strains seamlessly integrate and become one.
But before I go any further, this is a spoiler laden, no holds barred discussion of a really worth while movie. Don’t waste the movie experience by reading this walk through. Because that’s what this article will do if you haven’t seen it already. So – stop. Click one of these links right here, watch the movie, right now, then continue reading…
The Signal Plot Overview
When the curtain rises on The Signal we are introduced to Nic and Haley, a couple who until recently, attended MIT together. We also meet Jonah, the best friend of both Nic and Haley. The three of them are on a trip heading to California where Haley is moving for a year. The couple are obviously a bit on the rocks because of Haley’s decision to move to California. But Nic won’t talk about it at all. He’s begun to shut Hailey out and is obviously beginning to move on.
It is during the beginning of their trip to drop off Hailey that they begin to get annoying messages from a hacker named Nomad. The messages quickly begin escalating in intensity as Nomad hacks Hailey’s laptop and sends them video of themselves in the hotel. Later Nomad sends hack photos of their car on their commute to prove how good he is and to take it up yet another notch. It is then that Nic and Jonah decide that they are going to go and pay Nomad a visit in Utah to prove they are able to trace him and tell him to dial this chaos down. In an interview with iO9, director, William Eubank, stated that he really loved Catfish (Which I highlighted in my list of best documentaries) and the way they searched until they came to this random farm house. But then it was very mundane in Eubank’s opinion. So he decided to take that idea and blow it up.
And blow it up he did. Once Nic, Jonah and Hailey arrive at the house all hell breaks loose and the world turns completely upside down for the trio. Nic finds himself recovering in an old school lab type government facility. Occasionally Damon (Fishburne) would arrive and interview Nic and have him do fairly inane scientific experiments. Nic only wanted to know where Hailey and Jonah were. And Nic wouldn’t suffer Damon’s inanity. Nic wanted to know what was going on and he was going to stop at nothing to figure it all out…
I love this quote from Entropy mag on the movie which is very apropos to this need to figure it all out: “We’re trained throughout to doubt what we see, to question whether everything is as it seems. As the protagonist, Nic, becomes increasingly anxious, we might wonder if everyone else is insane, or if he is. Countless possible explanations run through our head, and a video that provides “evidence” of an alien (complete in the stereotypical look of a “little green man”), push us in one very obvious direction. And the ending we’re waiting for doesn’t exist because we’re not asking the right questions. Yet. In fact, qualities of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits are present here.”
Easy Questions About the movie The Signal
Alright before we start talking about the movie in more detail and at a greater complexity – let’s talk about some of the simpler questions I’ve already heard people raise when it comes to this movie:
Question #1 – What is this Signal? I didn’t hear any signal in the movie?!
In the trailer, which you can see here if you are interested, there was a definite mention of a signal – a sound – that could be heard by a few select individuals. But in the movie, there is no such dialogue. No narrator saying that some hear The Signal and some don’t. So if there is no actual Signal, then what is the title of the movie all about? Well, I personally think that ‘The Signal’ indicated in the movie is the trap and the tractor beam that draws Nic and Jonah, two hackers trying to trap another fellow hacker (Nomad) and expose him at a hacking conference. Apparently, Damon (or Nomad, better known as Laurence Fishburne) likes his test subjects to be super intelligent. William Eubank, the writer/director of The Signal, has confirmed that the reason he named the movie The Signal was because the signal in the movie is something the two hackers are searching for.
Question #2 – Wait, we see Nic running… and then on crutches, and then robotic legs? Which is it? And why did he need those crutches?
This one is easy to miss. The flashbacks are when we see Jonah and Nic running perfectly fine. Nic on crutches is present day. And we hear that Nic has come down with a degenerative disease that is slowly making his legs fail. It is only at the “Area 51” facility that we see that he’s been given new transplant legs. It is these uber new legs that help unveil the true location they are housed in. But we’ll get to that in due time. Good things come to those who wait.
Question #3 – When was the movie based? Present day, or 1952? We are presented with both eras simultaneously. I mean, TAPE CASSETTES? SERIOUSLY? Which is it?
The movie is set in a modern era. A lot of the tech jargon came from Eubank, who enjoyed wardriving as a younger kid. (Wardriving is a method of driving around neighborhoods and finding wi-fi networks to hack.) He also attended DEF CON with his friends and competed as a hacker there hoping for great geek prestige amongst his peers. So yeah, this is a modern time period with cell phones, wi-fi, internets, etc. It all goes sideways (in more ways than one, but primarily from a eschatological sense) after Jonah and Nic wake up in the science facility. Area 51, or what have you. It is then that we see land line telephones, cassette recorders, and old architectural sensibilities straight out of the 50’s. When asked about the dated scenes Eubank answered ““I’ve been to facilities, whether it’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, or NASA facilities [where] there’s parts of them that architecturally are still in that time.” I personally think that it is very discombobulating to skip from one modern aesthetic to this backwards world. And Nic obviously thinks so too seeing as though he found the whole situation pretty laughable. Eubank went on to comment that he “thought filling it with old tech was a way to populate a possible misdirect.”
Question #4 – I don’t understand what the deal is about the red briefcase that Fishburne carries around at critical moments in the movie?
The briefcase contains a gun. What’s there to get? Right, it is presented by Damon as being something more. But alas, it’s just a gun, an ominous scary gun, but just a gun all the same. The red brief case is just signifying the end of the line for the test subject.
Question #5 – Why were the people that Jonah and Nic encounter so completely mentally scrambled?
The total mental mind jobs that they meet, after they leave the facility, are previous test subjects. They are the left over detritus of previous experiments. WAIT WHAT?! Right. Let’s move on to the next stage of the conversation.
The movie is disorienting throughout. So much so that its difficult to catch one’s bearings. But, at the completion, things make more sense. Or at least they should make more sense than they did in the midst of the first viewing. I personally thought that the ending was expected and the only natural solution to what we had witnessed. But others I have met still didn’t understand the ending at the end of the day. So, I am going to give you three theories of what happened in The Signal, three possible explanations that could account for everything we’ve seen… some with better results, others with lesser.
THE MENTAL TRAUMA VIEW
This theory is basically just a perspective on the grief that Nic is going through with his illness. But for this theory to make any sense we have to understand exactly what is going on with Nic physically. At some point Nic was a runner, a cross country runner, and possibly very good at that. Then, we learn that Nic has a degenerative muscle disease that has caused his legs to fail. When we meet him he is still trying to mentally come to terms with these facts. Thus the mental wall he is putting up with his girlfriend.
The Signal in this view is 100% based around Nic and this internal struggle that he is going through. He is trying to figure out what to do with his life. His girlfriend is potentially breaking up with him. His legs have failed him. Life is crumbling around him. At the point Nic arrives at the shack he is mentally unhinged and just trying to reevaluate his life. But ultimately in this interpretation, everything we see is just an internal dialogue about his struggles and battles with this new reality. Thus the god/hero complex issues and the super hero legs. Thus the gun battles and craziness that brings the movie to some meaning for him and his psychological struggle.
THE SHACK VIEW
I have intentionally named this view after a fairly popular religious novel “The Shack”… heh. Maybe that confuses matters unnecessarily? But in this view it is simply explained. Everything before the Shack and the arrival at the Signal is real. Everything AFTER the Shack is not. Yes? Good. So when they step into the Shack, they never actually come out. There is no test facility. There is no mental humans with eerie revivalist leanings. There are no gun battles. Well there are, but they are all in their heads.
Why though? The answer could be as simple as Nomad. Maybe Nomad has hit them with an LSD bomb in the house? Maybe they have tripped across a war unit test facility not too unlike Jacob’s Ladder. (Sorry if I just ruined that movie for you, but its old, man. You missed your opportunity.) Or possibly Nic was just in the process of dying there in the shack (Again, like Jacob’s Ladder… To REALLY ruin Jacob’s Ladder for you.) But this theory is a very psychotropic exercise – a possibly drug induced experience for Nic and Jonah. I mean, Jonah?! He spent three days in the belly of a whale? What more do you want?
THE LITERAL VIEW
In this theory, what we see and experience is exactly as it happens. As mind-bendingly strange as it is. I’ll walk you through it in a timeline view:
- Nic is a cross country runner
- Nic & Jonah are accomplished hackers
- Nic & Jonah are driving Haley out to her school
- On the way across country they get whiffs of a signal of a hacker they’ve been competing with
- They follow the signal to a shack in the middle of the night
- Wake up in a science laboratory
- Nic wakes up with robotic legs
- Nomad or Damon, begins testing Nic for information
- Nic begins planning for an eventual escape
- Eventually Nic gets his friends and himself out
- But everything on the outside is not as it seems
- Other humans are mentally unstable
- Seems like they are in some sort of game park, or cordoned off space
- They eventually fight their way out past the guards
- Nic uses his robotic legs to break through the outer barrier
- And that is when we learn that they are on an alien spaceship
Seeing the ending of this movie makes it all clear that everything that has been going on (in the Literal View theory) has been about Aliens learning more about humans. It would seem that Nomad wants to study the best of the best and is always looking for something important. A weakness maybe? Whatever it is he is trying to grasp some deep understanding of the human condition. That is the point of the movie from this perspective. That is the explanation of all the weirdness going on all around them.
Eubank has stated unequivocally that Nic is an unreliable narrator. Take for example Nic’s girlfriend Haley. Why is she such a damsel in distress? Eubank says, “I am a big fan of movies that are told from one perspective, like Chinatown,” We hardly get past Nick’s perspective, even though a few scenes are from other POVs. And to Nick, Haley is sort of “a symbol of what he cares about,” and a part of himself that he wants to protect. “She is a source of everything that happens to him.” Watching closely though, there are many hints that a lot more is going on with her than Nick really notices. So much so, that Eubank has said that if he gets to do a sequel to The Signal, he would love to explore many of the details he buried throughout this movie that he did not get a chance to dig into the first time around. Some of the most important having to do with Haley.
So we know for SURE that there is a lot more going on in this movie than initially meets the eye. I personally am a fan of first theory because it brings to the forefront a lot of the character development that Nic is beginning to undergo when we first meet him. The shutting down, the coldness, the “I CAN DO IT”… and also the “I can’t do it” things we see. I thought that was a huge part of this movie, watching him respond to the world around him and try and respond to this new trauma in his life. But any particular theory works really.
What were your takeaways from The Signal? Maybe I’m missing a theory entirely? Stranger things have happened that is for sure! hahah. Share them with us in the comments.
Edited by, CY