Science fiction cinema doesn't get much more beautifully strange than The Signal.
An alien-interaction thriller that borrows from generations of earlier such films, it has the visual tone, production design and especially sound design to rival the best recent films in the genre.
It features a compelling young cast and a wizened, inscrutable veteran of the genre as the chief antagonist.
And then the filmmakers trip over themselves with a too-conventional/too exposition-heavy "let us explain this to you" finale that kind of unravels the strangeness that preceded it.
The Signal begins as three M.I.T. students — Nick (Brenton Thwaites), Haley (Olivia Cooke) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) — are driving a battered Volvo cross-country. They're being hounded by a hacker.
"Nomad" is "messing with us again," Nic warns Jonah. They taunt the hacker, and the hacker taunts back — turning on the camera of a nearby computer in the hotel room they've just checked into, posting traffic camera shots of their trek, messing with their heads.
Nic, who suffers from a debilitating illness that has him on crutches, ignores his girlfriend Haley's first warning: "You guys should just stop taunting him."
Nic used to be a jock, a cross-country star. Now, looking at a less and less mobile future, he's moving Haley across country, where she'll attend Cal Tech. He's irked, and he's arrogant.
He and Jonah trace Nomad to an address in the middle of the Nevada desert. "This doesn't look right," especially in the dark. Telling him, "Nic, you know this is stupid, right?" has no effect.
Next thing you know, screams, a supernatural event and Nic wakes up in what appears to be an underground research lab of the type we've seen in films from The Andromeda Strain to The Stand, where everybody wears elaborate hazmat suits, including Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who quietly, calmly, asks questions — and gives one answer: "You've made contact."
Director William Eubank handles the script's "how can I get out of this place?" sequence with skill. Nic's methodical problem solving and reasoning, and his rising rage (he can see Haley is in a coma in another sealed room) bring out his arrogance.
"You're dinosaurs with government grants," he fumes. "You're a relic protecting ruins."
Is that him insulting Dr. Damon, or some higher intelligence infecting him?
Thwaites, the Aussie actor who played Prince Phillip in Maleficent, makes a great, empathetic presence at the center of this, and Knapp (Super 8) is a credible foil, even if his character, the hacker with thick glasses, is a genre cliché.
But what makes The Signal work — up until it turns predictable — is the world in which they place these characters. Meghan C. Rogers' production design, David Lanzenberg's cinematography (including lovely flashbacks to Nic's cross-country sprints in the woods in springtime), Nima Fakhrara's eerie score and the overall sound design are top-drawer.
So even though The Signal isn't great sci-fi, you'd never know it to look at it and listen to it.