Three MIT students, computer whizzkid Nic (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) and geeky best bud Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving across country, taking Haley to California where she’s going to be changing colleges for the new term and, former athlete Nic suspects, possibly ditching him because she can’t handle the progressive neurological condition (possibly MIS or Muscular Dystrophy) that’s eating away at him and has already forced him to use crutches.

The closer they get to California though, the more Nic and Jonah find themselves being taunted online by a notorious computer hacker, NOMAD, who almost got the boys expelled earlier that year. When Jonah is able to figure out NOMAD’s location (just a slight detour away), they decide to confront the hacker in person, the boys driving to NOMAD’s secret hideout to confront him.

Driving up to NOMAD’s remote farm in the dead of night, the stage looks set for a teen serial killer thriller, and then…something inexplicable occurs. Waking up several days later, confused and disorientated, with no memory of the previous few days, Nic finds himself quarantined in an underground government facility staffed by scientists and soldiers in space suit-style HAZMAT suits right out of The Andromeda Strain led by the enigmatic Dr Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the “transition group.” But what is Nic transitioning from and why does the doctor want to know so much about the strange signal that led them to NOMAD…

Like Coherence and Upstream Colour before it, to reveal too much about William Eubank’s stylish, indie, slice of paranoid sci-fi The Signal runs the risk of spoiling it’s lo-fi, paranoid, mind-bending thrills and if it’s climactic reveal is somewhat predictable, feels borrowed from an episode of The Twilight Zone, it still packs a satisfying punch. And so what if you’re the kind of smarty-pants that guesses the ending of movies? It’s the journey that’s important to Eubank, not the destination. As with his first film, 2011’s Angels & Airwaves movie Love, Eubank has worked wonders on a modest budget, though perhaps not as modest as Love’s where Eubank recreated the International Space Station in someone’s driveway, creating a cloying, claustrophobic atmosphere even in the sequences when Nic escapes the oppressive, sterile underground corridors and while Eubank stages some effective action sequences, he’s concerned more with character and the more abstract, metaphysical aspects of the story, with doubt, with paranoia, with love.

Perhaps Eubank’s greatest asset though is his cast with a scene-stealing turn from the reliable Lin Shaye as a bonkers old lady our heroes encounter, geeky BFF Beau Knapp staying just the right side of annoying to make you care for him and an ambiguous, creepy Laurence Fishburne who’s skin-crawlingly calm and reasonable even as he’s executing alien abduction survivors while the wonderful Olivia Cooke shines in the woefully underwritten love interest role. But it’s young Aussie Brenton Thwaites who quietly impresses, shouldering the weight of the film, as the sensitive, vulnerable Nic groping towards an emotional epiphany that’s arguably more important than the more obvious mysteries at the film’s heart.

Fascinating, enthralling and ambitious, The Signal is a smart, thrilling head-scratcher that like the best sci-fi is more concerned with who and what we are than laser battles and anal probes. Though there is a wicked exploding cow.

Movie Review: The Signal
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