The Signal has been getting crazy buzz ever since it rocked Sundance. And now that this movie about computer geeks in a terrifying situation is coming out next Friday, we're finally getting inside the mysterious bunker of doom. We talked to director William Eubank about the meaning behind his strange film. Spoilers ahead...
Seriously, there are some spoilers for The Signal below. Eubank seemed to think it was OK to talk about this stuff before the film comes out, because it only adds to the interest in his story. But if you want to go into this movie spoiler-free, then step carefully.
Why the main characters are computer geeks?
In The Signal, two computer experts from MIT travel named Nick and Jonah across the country, along with Nick's girlfriend Haley. And they home in on the location of a hacker named Nomad who caused problems for them at MIT, and decide to visit him.
Eubank said he had a ton of friends growing up who were into hacker culture — he and his friends always went to Defcon and other hacker conventions that were close to his home in Southern California, and screwed around with computers. "I'm not the greatest computer guy in the world," says Eubank, but he adds that he's fascinated with the secret language of computers that most of us never master, even though we depend on computers for everything.
With computers, "there's this surface, this very thin veil of stuff [where] we know how to use them," says Eubank. "But if you're a hacker, you know the ins and outs... So you can do much more." He and his friends used to enter war-driving contests at Defcon, driving around and GPS-tagging all the open wifi networks (back when there were a lot more of them.) And Eubank is fascinated by A.I. research that attempts to duplicate the human brain.
This started out as a movie about Area 51
"I wanted to make a movie about Area 51 that people didn't realize was about Area 51," says Eubank. "I don't really know if there's been a great Area 51 movie recently, or any time at all. But any time you start putting Area 51 [into a film], you immediately start having all these social conceptions about what the film is about. So I wanted to make a film that in a roundabout way got around to Area 51, so it became an answer, as opposed to 'This is what the film is about.' And whether it really is about Area 51 or not, it was something I wanted to explore."
In the end, the Area 51 stuff is more of a throwaway idea in The Signal and kind of a misdirect — which is why Eubank says he's fine with talking about it before the film comes out.
Another inspiration for The Signal: Eubank says he saw the movie Catfish and was "bummed that that movie didn't get really crazy." The guys in the movie come to a house in the middle of nowhere, and go inside, and then it's not really that wild. So with The Signal, Eubank wanted to make a movie that "felt like this grounded thing," until it "just flipped out." You think you know what kind of movie you're watching in the first 10 minutes — but then the movie turns your expectations on their head.
As a fan of genre films, Eubank thought it was fun to explore some genre tropes, "but you arrive there in a much different way." Usually, you go to see a genre film, and "we know where they're going to go." But it's thrilling when a movie turns your expectations upside down.
Why is this movie called The Signal?
Even apart from the fact that there was a 2007 movie called The Signal (which we covered a lot at the time), it's kind of a random title for a movie about computer geeks looking for a hacker in the desert. Eubank says there are two reasons why this movie is called The Signal:
First, the "signal" in the movie's title is something the characters are searching for. Nick, the main character, is "in a place where he's putting up walls," says Eubank. "He wants to be more binary," seeing everything in black-and-white, or ones and zeroes. He believes "that's a stronger way to live your life."
But by the end of the movie, Nick "realizes the emotional, gray-area side of himself is perhaps more powerful than the logical answer," says Eubank. "When logic would say, 'Don't do this,' he's able to use emotion to make a decision that's stronger." So what's Nick is searching for, his signal, is probably his emotional side that he's buried.
Eubank quotes a great line from xkcd: "The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space — each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision."
And Nomad, the hacker they're searching for, is trying to lure smart people to his place in the desert — usually, when you see movies about people being abducted they're drifters who won't be missed. But what if you wanted to attract some of the smartest people in the world? That was one of the things that interested Eubank.
The second meaning of The Signal, for Eubank, is that "a signal is that moment that you catch something and realize something. When you get the signal, you can understand it."
Why is the main character disabled?
Nick, the hero of The Signal, is on crutches, and we eventually learn that he's had an illness that may never let him walk unassisted again. Eubank says he has a ton of disabled friends who "don't let those things define htem, and yet inherently it's still somewhat of a part of who they are, and they make some decisions that may be more catalyzing or intense decisions for them based on those disabilities."
So Eubank thought it was improtant to show that Nick isn't defined by his disability — when we first meet him, he's helping a kid with a coin-operated toy-grabbing machine, and we don't even realize at first he's on crutches. Later, Nick's girlfriend tells him, "I'm not helping you because I think you need it, but because I know you don't." His friends don't baby him or fuss over him, because they know he can handle stuff.
Nick's future is "wide open," says Eubank. "He doesn't know whewre he's going to go." And his life is very different than he imagined, when he was growing up. "When you're young and you're open, you're like, 'The whole world will be mine.'" Part of Nick's journey is recognizing there are some things he can't control.
What you'll get from a second viewing of The Signal
Eubank thinks the characters' motivations will be a lot clearer on a second viewing. And the final twists might make more sense, when you go back and "revisit certain parts, to try and understand what a certain motivation might be." It's hard to understand why certain characters do things, without "cutting to a bunch of flashbacks."
Also, on a second viewing, you might pick up more Easter eggs — legendary sound designer Ben Burtt did the sound for this movie at Skywalker Ranch, and you might just pick up some sounds from more famous movies in the mix here and there.
The reasons for the movie's dated aesthetic
The Signal takes place in the present day, with wifi and laptops and cellphones... but soon enough we find ourselves in a world of 1970s-looking technology and old-fashioned decorations and trappings.
"I've been to facilities, whether it's Brandenberg Air Force Base, or NASA facilities [where] there's parts of them that architecturally are still in that time," says Eubank. When NASA started talking about retiring the Space Shuttle, it was mentioned that some pieces of that ship were massive computers, which were one-tenth as powerful as your iphone.
It also helps bring the mystery forward, that Nick doesn't know where he is or what's going on, and whether he's in a government facility. "I thought filling it with old tech was a way to populate a possible misdirect," says Eubank. Plus young hackers are going to be more puzzled by old technology than by anything cutting-edge — today's 10-year-olds can't comprehend how a cassette tape works. Plus seeing such outdated technology pushes Nick's buttons and gets him "fired up."
Why is Nick's girlfriend kind of a damsel in distress?
Nick and his friend are both super-hackers, who take very active roles in the story, while his girlfriend Haley is noticeably passive.
Eubank says people ask him about this at screenings. And he says it's a matter of Nick being an unreliable narrator. "I am a big fan of moives that are told from one perspective, like Chinatown," says Eubank. We hardly get past Nick's perspective, even though a few scenes are from other POVs. And to Nick, Haley is sort of "a symbol of what he cares about," and a part of himself that he wants to protect. "She is a source of everything that happens to him."
But if you watch carefully, there are hints that a lot more is going on with Haley than Nick really notices. And if Eubank gets to make a sequel to The Signal, he'd like to explore some of the things that he planted in this film that he didn't get to explore this time around. Some of which have to do with Haley.