'The Signal' Is An Ambitious Mind-Bending Sci-Fi Thriller [Sundance Review]

The Signal is the kind of science fiction movie that I love — intense, mysterious, original and extremely ambitious. What is The Signal? It's a puzzle that keeps you guessing and working to figure it out.

From the start, The Signal is unusual; you're not really sure what you're watching. At first, it seems to be an indie road trip movie about three MIT freshmen driving across the country. It really feels like an indie dramedy.

Then those three uncover a new clue to the possible location of a hacker only known as "Nomad," who they've been feuding with for some time. This leads them to a creepy house in the middle of the desert. You might wonder if this movie is a horror movie. "Bring your camera and tape this," the characters are told — is it found footage?

After a terrifying scare, the trio awakens imprisoned in an underground facility. A character played by Laurence Fishburne, wearing a contamination suit, questions them about having made first contact with an alien species. This is when the scifi craziness begins.

So is The Signal a indie dramedy? Is it a horror movie, is it a science fiction mindfuck? Or how about a suspenseful thriller? The Signal is all of these things. I'm not going to reveal any more story details in this review because I think you're better off going into this film without knowing what to expect. (One thing The Signal isn't is the 2007 indie horror film bearing the same title, which, to make things even more confusing, also premiered at Sundance.)

The Signal is a high concept film with big production value and an intimate character story, completed on relatively low budget — under $4 million. The low-fi FX work not only looks great, but feels unique. The practical FX that was done by Legacy, formerly the Stan Winston Studio. The film also features beautiful, incredibly artful cinematography, and compositions that you wouldn't expect from a genre film of this budget level. Its no surprise that director William Eubank  is a former cinematographer.

While the hacking plot sounds ridiculous in print, the portrayal of hacking in the movie is more realistic than other movies. The story has so many fun twists and turns — it's a journey to discover what's inside this Twilight Zone-styled set of nested mystery boxes. And rest assured, the story does lead to a satisfying yet unpredictable ending. This is the type of film that will help fill the void for fans of the television series Lost. The film introduces a number of mysteries and unknowns but most are explained by the end (or can be explained when thinking back and making the right connections).

That's not to say there aren't a few loose ends for you to speculate about and ponder, as well as an ending that could lead into something more. This is not a movie that ends at the credits; it asks for you to engage. The Signal feels like it could be the start of a franchise. Focus Features is set to release the movie, and if we're lucky and enough people find it, maybe we'll get a follow up set in this world.

William Eubank is a writer/filmmaker that we need to watch. Eubank's debut feature Love was shot for very little in a space-station that he built in his parents backyard. If this is the type of film he can make on a limited budget, I can't wait to see what he could create with more resources./Film Rating: 8 out of 10