Thursday, March 12, 2015

Film Friday: The Signal (2014)

Arg. I hate you Lost. You taught “writing fraud” to an entire generation of writers, and now I’ve been defrauded by The Signal. Grr. I almost liked this film until the ending.


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 “” His friends are nowhere to be found.
With Nic awake, he soon finds himself being questioned by government scientist Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne). Fishburne assures him that the hacker they were following was no hacker. He was instead an alien. Nic, kind of believes him, but not really until Nic tries to escape only to be thwarted by the alien apparently escaping and causing serious damage to the facility.

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He then tries another escape attempt only to discover that his legs, which were useless due to muscular dystrophy, have been replaced by the alien with metal legs with serious superpowers.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.
What Pissed Me Off

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.
But then we hit the ending, and that ruined the film for me. Why did it ruin the film for me? Because it became obvious to me that the filmmakers had no idea how to end this film and how to answer the questions they had asked the audience to contemplate. And that made the whole film feel like a fraud.


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?
Suddenly, we are shocked to discover that Nic’s legs have been replaced and the new legs he has have super powers.

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?
All of this feels like the film is unwinding and the filmmakers didn’t know what to do, so they opted for chase scenes and actions that made little sense.

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?
If the aliens are good, then why pretend to be bad and why make Nic go through the whole fake prisoner thing just to give him new legs. And if they are evil, why give him powerful new super legs? It makes no sense and they don’t even try to explain it. They just give you this fake ending that is meant to trick you into thinking that they revealed the final mystery that explains it all!

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.




AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I'm finding that small independent films like this really are where science fiction is interesting these days, but sadly, half of them are utter crap and most of the rest just aren't fully realized. This one went well for a while, but just collapsed on landing.

Kit said...

I remember a sketch parodying lost.

"Every answer leads to another question."
"Repeat for 6 years and you get Lost"

shawn said...

Almost netflixed it, but it was getting poor reviews. Seems like I made the right choice. Although I must say, I enjoyed Lost.

I have a independent film for you Andrew, The Machine. It came out in 2013 and is about two scientists working on artificial intelligence. It feels like it could be a precursor to the Terminator movies. Not much action in it, but I enjoyed it just the same.

Gideon7 said...

Geez, without even having seen the film I can come up with two better endings just off the top of my head:

- The aliens are shanghaiing humans as grunts to fight a nasty war. They are getting their memories erased after each battle, which is why they don't remember losing their limbs, and it explains why their replacement limbs are so much better.

- The teenagers were captured by aliens who consider eating the flesh of sentients a delicacy but their ethics forbid killing them. They gradually lose more limbs and ultimately are nothing but living heads in cyborg bodies. They then join up with the alien (another victim) and fight a revolt against their captors in an uprising.

C'mon, it's not that hard.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That is the Lost formula exactly!

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I'll have to look for that. That sounds interesting!

Yeah, I think you made the right choice. I had some hope for the film, but it just never panned out and then the ending just made the whole thing fall apart.

AndrewPrice said...

Gideon7, Wow! Those would have been truly shocking endings!

I think there are literally hundreds of cool/interesting endings they could have used. And in this case, the ending is what ultimately sells the film because that is the point to a film like this -- find out what is really going on. Unfortunately, it feels like they never bothered to even think about it. The idea that "he's really on an alien ship!" isn't an ending, it's just the opening line to the ending.

Moreover, this "ending" was already done much more interestingly in Dark City... where again, that discovery was just the opening line of the ending.

Tennessee Jed said...

wow, I cannot believe how much this appears to suck. Even on free t.v. with nothing else to do, it sounds like a waste of time and insult to one's intelligence. Let us hope there will be no "The Signal 2 ...... tagline this time the aliens get hinky"

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I haven't seen this yet but after scrolling past the spoilers, I decided "F--- it!" and read the review anyway. Sounds like a massive letdown... bummer.

Here's the thing with Lost... knowing how the show ends, they could've told the story in three years instead of six. And I look back at all the discussion, all the analysis, the intensity with which I would read post-episode articles at work the next morning. And what did I get out of it?


And given how arc-based the show was, I have a hard time picking anything resembling a favorite episode, and I honestly have no need to revisit the show anytime soon. I don't want to be a hater—it was often a riveting hour of TV, but all the time spent talking about it could've been put to better use.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Like I said, the film felt like it could turn out to be quite good, but then it sputtered and then it died and made you realize the whole thing had been a waste of time.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I found Lost to be excellent at first, but annoying once it became clear they were never going to answer the questions. I would have been even more annoyed if I had been participating in discussions of the series.

Tennessee Jed said...

you know, that failing reminds me of another show that had a lot of promise at first. The Mentalist was a crime procedural with the twist that the star (Simon Baker) was a former con man "psychic" who used those skills to solve the crime. The back story involved a serial killer named "Red John" that had murdered Baker's wife and daughter, and he was obsessed with getting him. As the series progressed, they made a similar error. The audience became aware that no matter how much it looked like Red John would be caught, you knew he would somehow get away, and it became unrealistic and boring. Strangely enough, the final season, after they finally killed Red John was one of the best. To a degree, 24 had the same problem. If you analyzed the plotting, every season was exactly the same. You knew nothing was ever resolved until the end, and it became so predictable.

Kit said...


I remember trying to watch the last or second-to-last season of 24 and realizing just how reliant they had become on moles.

ScottDS said...

Speaking of bad TV, CBS just premiered CSI: Cyber and I'm already enjoying the articles about how badly it portrays computing and the Internet.

It stars Patricia Arquette and I bet at the Oscar after-party, she was regretting signing up for this! :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Kit and Scott - given that Andrew has pretty much nailed The Signal's monumental capacity to disappoint, did either of you catch a show last season titled "Halt and Catch Fire"? I think it is on AMC with a second season scheduled for later in the spring or early summer. It purported to be about the early days in the development of the P.C. and I hung in with it for season 1. Don't know how accurate it is, but I did get caught up in the characters and the story. I'd be interested in if anybody saw it and what they thought about it.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I watched the show and I liked it enough. I'm a fan of Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies RIP!)... BUT it was obvious, at least to me, that they were trying a little too hard, both with symbolism (the rain, digging in the yard, etc.), and giving characters complicated back stories. I have nothing against "dark" or "complicated" but it's like, can't we have one relatively normal and well-adjusted character?

It'll be interesting to see where it goes, but hopefully it'll go there in a less cryptic manner!

Tennessee Jed said...

I like the way you put that Scott (about the symbolism and overly complicated characters.) I sometimes felt that way about David Lynch. It seemed like he inevitably tried to "out Lynch" himself. Still, I suppose they must have gotten something right since I did watch the full season. But if the Lynch analogy proves to hold some validity, it probably means season two could become more rather than less cryptic. That is probably the biggest danger, and would force an early exit.

Anonymous said...


Reading your review and the spoilers made me think of Dark City, then I saw your comment mentioning it and I'm glad you said that they did it better as it is an excellent movie. I don't mind movies with open ending, as long as the journey was great and it makes sense, this seems to miss those points, where Dark City didn't.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It was totally a rip-off of Dark City's ending, which is a fantastic movie and a great ending -- one of my favorites. That's another sin in science fiction: to rip something else off and not even expand upon it or change it.

I don't mind open endings either, but they need to at least make sense an suggest a possible solution that is worth waiting for. This wasn't even an open ending so much as the "reveal" being "they're being experimented upon by aliens!" Well, duh.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I did not see "Halt and Catch Fire". I remember the adds, but it wasn't enough to pull me in. From what you've said, I'm sorry I missed it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think that happens a lot where shows start to develop those kinds of patterns which the audience picks up on and then it turns them off.

Post a Comment