The Signal (2014)
"The Signal" was recommended to me by a friend who hadn't actually seen the film but after reading a review thought it might be of interest to me. And it was ... up to a point.
I should first mention that this review is loaded with spoilers, so if you have any intention of watching the film, do so first then come back and read my comments.
The first part of the film begins in a leisurely fashion, giving you a little background on the three main teen characters. The characters are MIT material, so you are not driven mad by inane conversation. Also, the depiction of the characters is presented in a Terrence Malick kind of dreamy reverie manner, with artistic visuals. It's leisurely for a 97-minute film, but not boring.
The focus is on Brenton Thwaites (Nic) the primary protagonist who has lost the use of his legs in a running exercise. He, his girlfriend and best friend set out on a journey to California to drop off Nic's girlfriend (Olivia Cooke as Haley).
Along the way we discover that Nic and has best friend (Beau Knapp as Jonah) have been plagued by a cyber-hacker named Nomad. Nomad had previously knocked out their servers at MIT and still seems to be on their case. This is infuriating to Nic and Jonah and really want to take him down or at least expose his identity. For Nic this is something of a conflict because his primary mission to drive his girlfriend, Haley, to CA). Insecure about his relationship with Haley, Nic figures -- what the hell, let's go after Nomad -- much to Jonah's delight.
This takes their drive into basically the middle of nowhere -- a small, dirt road and to an apparently abandoned house. Unwisely (but typical of movies), the two boys explore the creepy house and cellar using just flashlights. Naturally, Haley (still in the car) begins screaming. They rush to her rescue. The camera work here is hand-held and B&W. We get outside near the car, and something is thrown at the camera. I had no idea what I'd just seen, so I asked my wife. She said she thought it was Haley's body.
We now move into a different phase of the entire story line but don't know it.
Nic awakens in what appears to be a has-mat facility at an undisclosed location. Laurence Fishburne is introduced as a guy in an environmental suit, and introduces himself as Dr. Damon. He has a lot of questions for Nic, but supplies few explanations. Notable among these is that it's imperative that Nic not try to exit the facility because "they" are above us, there is a danger of contamination because he has been exposed to extra-biologic entities.
The middle part of the film involves Nic trying to escape (with Haley). His first attempt is unsuccessful. After he hysterically discovers that his legs have been removed in replace of robotic-looking pieces, Nic realizes that he can now move around with the artificial limbs -- and that the limbs are actually superior in power to his original legs.
The next segment involves the three protagonists re-united but faced with the conundrum of how to exit the desert landscape with only one road. The men in suits (or otherwise) seem to be everywhere. Thus, the second attempt at freedom also fails.
But, somehow or other Nic realizes he can escape immediate capture by running at a tremendous speed.
He breaks through a glass-like boundary at the end of the road. He finds himself looking at an impossibly large alien city. Fishburne arrives and finally removes his headgear to reveal that he has a human face but no rear head -- or at least one that is just minimally occupied with wires and electronics.
The camera pans out slowly so that we can see the immensity of the city Nic has observed. Beyond that we get to see that the upper-part of the spacecraft is the size of half of a living planet. The point is taken. This craft is so mammoth that it could only have been constructed by an intelligence far superior than man's comprehension.
The final scene is awesome but unavoidable disappointing. It points out how pointless and futile the attempts were for our protagonists to ever trying to escape from their predicament. There was really nowhere to go. They were abducted for whatever weird experiments the aliens wanted to perform on the characters, and these poor souls never had a snow ball's chance from the onset.
As a preface to all good story telling, the writer has to give his/her protagonists at least a 50/50 chance of succeeding in their goals. A viewer watches the film with this story-telling promise in mind. Unfortunately, "Signal" ignores one of the primary tenants of good story telling, and reveals that the protagonists (to whom we identify) were never in a fair fight for their survival, and I don't know anyone who would think that would end up making anything more than an average (or below average) flick.
Once the viewer realizes that the remaining captives are doomed to the incomprehensible aliens, you realize that you've watched several rodents trying to traverse and escape from a maze that has no exit, and you really feel cheated.
Although it would take a lot of impact away from the concluding scenes. The crew involved with this picture (particularly the screen writers) should have given some insight about the plight of the earth characters -- just out of fairness to the audience. This would have taken away a certain amount of tension, but it would have leveled out the inordinately big surprise at the end. For the sake of balance, I don't see any other alternative.
Then there are the incongruities. While in confinement Nic and friends are treated fairly benignly (even if this means covert experiments upon them). Once they manage to escape, they are targeted with human hand grenades and rifles firing conventional bullets? Why? Where are they really going to go? And why are ultra-advanced aliens reduced to using hand grenades and rifle fire? Are they still trying to prop us the illusion that they are earth men? If so, what for? Since the aliens could easily capture each runaway, why shoot them in the back?
Yes, there are a lot of incongruities, and I've only touched the surface. I'd like to recommend this film, but in good conscience cannot. It's something to watch for its stylistics, but as stated, it doesn't end up being a very satisfying story-telling piece of movie making.