How do you tell a new alien story? You can't approach it from a horror movie perspective, that's been done to death. A story where the aliens from classic sci-fi stories are real? That's been done too. It's hard to find a new angle on such a well-trodden and beloved genre without it feeling tropey.
And then there's The Signal.
From filmmaker William Eubank, this 2014 movie uses the tropes of a low-budget alien abduction movie to set your expectations — and then it completely blows them out of the sky.
The Signal is a 2014 low-budget sci-fi movie that starts out simply as a coming-of-age film. Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and his friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving Nic's girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) across the country, as she's in the middle of transferring from MIT to CalTech. Along the way, they deal with Nic's disability (he uses crutches,) the rising tensions in Nic and Haley's relationship going long-distance — and a devious hacker named NOMAD, who sends cryptic sentences to the boys.
At first glance, that last bit doesn't quite fit the tense road trip tone the movie presents up to this point. But it's the perfect inciting incident for the ensuing sci-fi subversion, as Jonah manages to track down the messages to an address in Nevada — an address that just so happens to be on their route to California.
After more tense conversations between Nic and Haley, they make it to the address, which appears to be little more than an abandoned shack. And then, everything takes a turn.
Borrowing a page from The Blair Witch Project, the film switches to found footage as the boys investigate the shack. They're interrupted by a scream from the car as they rush out to find Haley levitating into a strange ship.
When Nic wakes up, he's in a wheelchair in a mysterious, sterile-looking research facility where he is interviewed by Damon, played by Matrix alum Laurence Fishburne. He begins to realize something is very wrong. He's held prisoner by these researchers as they try to figure out what happened to him.
"What happened to him" just happens to be his one tool for escape. Nic and Jonah find themselves missing body parts — legs and arms respectively — replaced with alien tech prosthetics. What's more, the boys discover additional tech in Haley's spine. Thanks to these bionic upgrades, they can pose a prison break, and set up some stellar action sequences as well.
The Signal seems like an alien abduction movie posed from the point of view of the alien. What if you were captured on Earth and detained for an indefinite amount of time just because you wanted to go exploring? That's what happens to Nic, Jonah, and Haley — and, presumably, what happened to any extraterrestrial life forms that may or may not be inside Area 51.
But this movie isn't content with just subverting the alien abduction genre. By the end of the movie, everything about Nic's barren desert location is thrown into question. It's a huge twist that I won't spoil here, but I will say all the keys you need to understand it have already been mentioned above, so it won't go over your head.
If you're looking for a genre-bending sci-fi thriller that will keep you guessing at every turn, The Signal is the movie for you.
The Signal is now streaming on Netflix in the U.S..