Spoilers for The Signal begin in 41... 5... 3... 2...
The Signal (2014)
By Hardeep Aujla
Once upon a rainy Switzerland weekend, Lord Byron threw a party. Probably something like Puffy would do in our times: lots of famous people in attendance. Mary Shelley was there, had a nightmare after a night of horror-story-hot-potato and penned Frankenstein for the remainder of her stay. Nearly 200 years pass and we cite it as the first piece of science-fiction. Its philosophical discourse on man's folly of playing God by creating "artificial" life would inspire artists for generations and provide the genre with one of its most endearing pre-occupations. Technology advances and the stories keep up, or sometimes already had the lead. We get a broad spectrum of mechano-stuff from the "housewives' dream" Robby The Robot, to Sarah Connor's worst nightmare, the Terminator. Isaac Asimov lays down some fundamental, human-protecting laws, anticipating an emergent property which begins to rouse between the circuit boards and soldered wires. Johnny Five says he "is alive", Pris quotes Descartes, "I think, Sebastian... therefore I am", echoing an automaton that's been sitting in the town hall at Neuchatel since the 1700's writing that exact same phrase over and over again. Today, angst around AI research is manifested in cinema with a noticeable surge in recent years. Her (2013), Chappie (2015) and Ex Machina (2015) (which I've not seen but looks to be pretty similar to 2013's The Machine, right down to the fembot's name of Ava) all compute the dilemma of nuts and bolts and code gaining sentience. Then Automata (2014) straight passes forward the baton of life to them, because how else are we gonna survive the interstellar getaway with our squishy, frail and generally not-space-friendly bodies when we eventually wreck this rock?
With William Eubank's The Signal (2014), the AI isn't trying to overtake mankind; it's already light years ahead. It's a rare, subversive flip of agency where a superior robotic race pokes around to see what we flesh-bags are made of. At this point I should declare that all of this is pure speculation. The Signal is very sketchy about what it's about for most of its runtime, with the twist and allusions to all of the above only being presented in the closing shots. It's so subtle that I'm not entirely convinced that many of the questions it raises are done so intentionally. But let's assume they are.
Nic (Brenton Thwaites) is our lead. We're introduced to him and his intellectual proficiency as he gives a kid the mathematical secret to picking his chosen toy out of a claw-game machine. Good start: a protagonist with a strong scientific/mathematical aptitude often makes for a uniquely intense interaction with the wider Sci-Fi elements later, and we don't get a lot of them anymore (check the 1987 John Carpenter film Prince Of Darkness, which is probably the greatest battle-against-inter-dimensional-forces-to-obtain-a-doctorate-film). Turns out that this whizz-kid is a hacker who, along with his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) and their hacker-buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp), is on a road–trip to look for his hacker-nemesis who has been leaving cryptic messages on his Tumblr or something. Nic is also a champion cross-country runner but is now suffering from a degenerative disease making him reliant on crutches, a situation which is conveyed effectively in all its life-changing weightiness through the interactions between the trio. This peaks in a
At this point, comparisons to Akira (1988) have been attributed to the film but they are superficial at best. The robotic metamorphosis appears to only carry any symbolism for the paraplegic Nic who now has a sleek pair of robotic legs. Jonah gets robotic arms, and Haley is alluded to having some kind of advanced sensory ability, but it gives her too much of a headache to do much with or even say much else for the rest of the film (a misstep in my opinion which prevents Nic's character arc, and the viewer's emotional investment, from hitting peak levels before the twist). Now, at the climax, Nic stands in the middle of a highway, his girlfriend scooped off in a helicopter, Fishburne and his cronies blocking his way following the cat-and-mouse that ensued. It parallels a poetic flashback we've been teased with repeatedly throughout: Nic, during a cross-country trail, standing by a rushing river blocking his path to the other side. But he has new legs now, and he gives them a spin, breaking through the blockade and the sound barrier before crashing through a faux-horizon to reveal a giant Truman Show–esque stage aboard a spaceship run by sentient machines, of which Laurence Fishburne is just one of many (now his HAL-like voice has context). This is a good twist, aside from the enjoyably whimsical Jean-Jacques Perrey-style score being rick-rolled by dubstep. Many reviews expressed frustration at not seeing the twist coming, but that's props due to the filmmakers who made us believe all along that Laurence Fishburne "sweats and has bad breath" as Kyle Reese would fervently tell us.
These robots have gone from doing the "roboti" mundane drudgery of their namesake in R.U.R. (1920) to conducting what seems to be the galaxy's most complex scientific experiment: quantifying the human spirit. Nic has a resolute drive and ambition both physically and mentally, the former being taken by disease and the latter by a superior, artificial intellect. Throw a rocky relationship into this and you have a guinea pig firing on all tumultuous engines. How far will emotions, aspirations and our love for others take us? (Put that line in the radio trailer; why do they always sound like parodies anyway?) This kid fits the inclusion criteria for Fishburne's quest for that elusive, indispensable human characteristic. Before artificial intelligence can define itself, it needs to know exactly what its comparator is. This is the bow I believe The Signal ties (or should have tied if I'm way off the mark) on its mysterious package of a story: intimate human dramas being played with by an advanced robotic curiosity. Asimov would be pissed.
Hardeep Aujla writes and edits album reviews for Word Is Bond in Leicester, England.