The Signal opens with three dirty teenagers who are going toward the Nevada desert in their car. They seem like jerks and there is some emotional issue with the girl, but honestly, who cares... it’s just filler. The reason they are going to the desert is that they are tracking a computer hacker who hacked into MIT, where they go to college, and ruined several servers, including their own. In doing so, the hacker somehow shifted the blame to them and they were nearly expelled. Now they plan to find this person, who goes by the name NOMAD, and “expose’ him.
After a few minutes, they arrive at the plot. They go into the abandoned desert home where the hacker supposedly lives and they find it empty. Then everything goes black. When the main character Nic awakens, he finds himself in what appears too be a dingy hospital, where everyone wears protective clothing. On his arm, he finds the tattoo “188.8.131.52.” His friends are nowhere to be found.
As the questioning sessions continue, Nic finds his girlfriend, who is in a coma, and makes contact with his other friend through the vents, though Fishburne assures him that is not really his friend. Nic, naturally, argues with Fishburne and doesn’t trust him. He then tries another escape attempt only to discover that his legs, which were useless due to muscular dystrophy, have been replaced by the alien with metal legs with serious superpowers.
Nic finally escapes and finds his other friend. He also manages to wake his girlfriend from the coma. The film then turns into a chase film with several more reveals before the ultimate ending.
Let me start by saying that I actually enjoyed this film a good deal as it progressed. No, I didn’t like the start, but once it got past that “grungy teens with emotional problems driving somewhere art film” section, the film actually started to build a really good mystery. It was well-enough paced at that point to hold my attention. The characters were interesting too, even if they weren’t all that smart. Nic in particular felt very clichéd, but Fishburne was interesting. The story also seemed to build very well, as did the mystery.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
Here is the mystery the film builds. First, it presents this mysterious hacker who seems all powerful. And when the heroes find his home, it is empty. So who is he and what does he want? Why did he pick on them?
Then Nic wakes up in a government facility with Haley in a coma and his other friend missing. Nic also has this mystery tattoo, which he comes to believe means “Area 51” because that is what the numbers add up to. So where is he?
As Nic is questioned by Fishburne, you begin to wonder what Fishburne really wants. His questions seem pointless and it’s not clear why he seems to be holding Nic as a prisoner. He tells Nic that the hacker is really an alien and shows him some proof that is hard to believe. Then we see the residue of the alien attacking the facility, and that is really shocking. So is the alien evil or is Fishburne evil and the alien is his prisoner?
At this point, the film has raised so many questions. Who is the alien? Why is he here? Is he good or bad? He seemed like a malicious hacker and he seemed ultra-dangerous given the damage he did to the facility, but if he’s so dangerous, then why would he give Nic new legs?
Nic then escapes and we discover that Haley wakes up from her coma the minute they leave the facility and his friend has had his arms replaced. So the alien is good? But then we start meeting the locals and they all seem like they have been brainwashed to worship the aliens. So what the heck is going on? Fishburne also tells Nic that he can’t protect Nic from the aliens if he’s outside the facility.
But then Fishburne starts shooting people.
This is the moment, the film started to concern me because the characters seemed to become rudderless. Nic is ostensibly trying to escape, but just seems to run around randomly. Fishburne is following him, shooting everyone he comes into contact with for no reason I can tell. The alien gets dropped from the story. Fishburne then removes his protective clothing and shows us that his head is made of the same material as Nic’s leg, meaning he’s the alien? Or what?
Then the ending arrives. The film ends when Nic runs across a bridge and breaks through a glass wall. The camera pans back and we see that he is onboard a massive spaceship. The credits role. No attempt is made to explain anything. How did Nic get aboard the spaceship? Why did the aliens do the ruse at all? It makes no sense and doesn’t seem to have a purpose that they would tell Nic about themselves or that they would do it in this manner. And why give Nic the new legs, especially as they are powerful enough to let him escape the holodeck or whatever it is, and why make him feel like a prisoner who needs to escape after giving him the legs? What are the aliens thinking?
This pisses me off.
If you’re going to sell a film to the audience on the basis of a mystery, then the mystery needs to be answered or it needs to be presented in a coherent enough way to allow the audience to think they understand it. Otherwise, it feels like fraud. Why? Because when these clues are presented as part of the same story, there is an assumption in the human mind that these clues will fit together as part of the same story and together will tell us something deeper about the story. Unfortunately, Lost taught a generation of writers that it is enough to just toss out clues without ever tying them into anything. But that’s bunk. In effect, the writer is asking for credit based on work they never did: judge my mystery even though I never bothered to think one through. And discovering that the writer has cheated feels like one of those moments where someone asks you a riddle they don’t know the answer to, or tells you a story to which they don’t know the ending... deeply frustrating. And that is not how films should make you feel.
Look, you can leave unanswered questions, but you need to provide enough clues for the audience to feel like they can answer the mystery. This film doesn’t do that. To the contrary, this film leaves you feeling like the writers didn’t know how the story should finish and they hoped that by throwing up a big, though meaningless, reveal to end the film that the audience wouldn’t be smart enough to see their failing.