The Signal, released this past Friday, is already attracting a lot of attention as either one of the most original and genre-defying films of the year, or as a visually stunning but ultimately disappointing thriller.
I don’t want to get into the film’s flaws, or even if it was good or bad. At the moment, to me, this is irrelevant, and perhaps my ultimate judgment on the movie’s value is going to be biased in such a way that it might have no bearing on whether you like or dislike the movie. Let’s answer the typical question though.
Did you enjoy the movie? Yes, very much so.
I’m thinking about my thoughts on a few other films that The Signal reminded me of. First, M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. Lady in the Water was a pretty huge disappointent to critics and fans alike. Rotten Tomatoes‘ Tomatometer reports a crushingly low 24%. But it was perhaps, in my (very controversial and much disagreed with) opinion, Shyamalan’s best film. It was literary, connected, meta, and smart in a way his other movies, which were highly entertaining but also much more about the “big reveal” or punchline, then a cohesively constructed storyline. To me, Lady in the Water really was a feat in masterful storytelling, the kind of complex but concise narrative-weaving that doesn’t get seen much in films because audiences often find them dull, convoluted, pointless. But to me, the film was triumphantly and masterfully aware of mythical, literary, fairy-tale, and storytelling cliches, tropes, character developments, etc. in a way that the simplicity of the situation actually revealed a highly intelligent and complicated meta-narrative about the nature and role of storytelling itself.
Another film, Looper, which I loved partially because I’m usually sold on almost any movie with Bruce Willis, but also because it was one of the most tightly-knit narratives I had seen in a Hollywood film ever. Every single scene, shot, moment was tied to another scene, shot, or moment, every moment connecting to another moment, not a moment wasted in gratuity or visual ambivalence. Can Vladmir Propp join in on this conversation?
The Signal is talked about as a movie that leads up to a big reveal. Indeed the ambiguity and tension of the trailer, and the general anxiety induced by the first half of the film-watching experience too lead to this assumption. But what was interesting to me was that the film almost wasn’t that at all. Sure, yes, if I described to you the ending of the film, it would be a major spoiler. But not in the, “AND THEN HE WOKE UP AND IT WAS ALL A DREAM!” kind of way. But in that the ride of the movie, the journey, leads you through an emotional and visceral path that leads to a conclusion that seems awe-inspiring (visually, the ending is incredibly impactful), but also, one in which you realize that this is the only logical explanation for what you’ve seen.
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. It may contribute too that I saw the film on the night of a full moon.
In the end, the pieces fall into place in a way where everything, after all, is exactly as it seems, and simultaneously, nothing is as it seems. But isn’t that the nature of reality? Are we back in The Matrix? After all the familiarly serene and authoritative nature of Laurence Fishbourne’s performance adds that tinge, and of course as the past arbiter of red pill vs. pill, we are already suspicious of his character simply because of the context of his past role in a warped version of reality.
I’m avoiding concrete details because, ultimately, this is a film you want to experience for yourself. It’s emotional and visceral in a way, and I’d like to see how you felt versus the way I felt. In a way, the emotional and the logical almost seem to get pitted against each other in a reverse contradiction, and then come back to overlap again. We see the scientists as calm, cool, collected. Hyper-logical. Hyper-calm. Hyper-rational. This is humanity at its most lacking. A harsh side of human nature in its ability to turn off its empathy and proceed for something like “the greater good.” At the same time, we see Nic as incredibly emotional. He feels a lot. He is often nostalgic, he’s in love, he’s anxious, passionate, angry, determined, stubborn, sad. But he is also very rational, intelligent, clever. We see his skills on the computer and he demonstrates his cleverness in the facility after he is “recovered.”
At one point, I think, everyone seems so extremely human. Pushing in different directions and against different envelopes, but somehow both the anxious passion of Nic wanting to see his girlfriend Haley and the governmental coldness of the men in suits provide contrasting but not so different representations of humanness. At one point, I think, this movie is really about humans and empathy and what makes us us.
Other things. The lighting throughout the film is phenomenal. The consistency of the creepiness of the well-lit rooms is shudder-inducing. Doubt and uncertainty become the norm. Nostalgia becomes both a reprieve and a cause for anxiety. Freud’s unheimlich is ridiculously relevant. And the action sequences are out of control and amazing. They remind me of the action sequences in Akira or Dragonball.
There is one monologue in the film that is particularly apt. I should have written it down, so when you go to watch, listen for it. Nic is asked to complete a simple test involving shapes, colors, words. Upset at the absurdity of such a facile task, he completes the task while also ranting about the proposed objectivity of words versus the subjectivity of colors themselves. Thinking about degrees of objectivity and subjectivity in relation to colors, and then in relation to the words for those colors, ie. language, I think there is an analogy here for the entire filmic world of The Signal.
“Our bodies are the quanta and our minds are the qualia – together they form a physical entity capable of interaction with many forms in the universe.”
― Rajeev Kurapati