What differentiates The Signal from so many other films is its melding of genres. Describing the movie as simply a horror or a new-wave zombie thriller would fail its uniquely artistic vision as a social commentary on dependence on electronic devices. Not only does the film, told in three linear yet fundamentally disjointed “transmissions” by three different directors, hold its own as a potential cult classic, but it also creates a world of alternate viewpoints in the city of Terminus (harkening back to an historical name for Atlanta).
The film, shot in and around Atlanta by directors who grew up in the city’s suburbs, essentially follows the three main characters during New Year’s Eve as a mysterious signal plagues the city’s electronic devices. The signal appears to distort people’s interpretation of the events occurring around them, and, in a sense, drives them into states of paranoia and primal desires. Those that are “infected” exhibit personal realities that are shaped by the suggestive auditory and visual inputs of local events, leading to extreme modes of thought.
“Transmission 1: Crazy In Love,” directed by David Bruckner, introduces the audience to Mya, an unfortunate young woman stuck in a marriage to a man she does not love. Anessa Ramsey plays Mya effectively, portraying her as dependent and idealistic. Mya’s lover, Ben (Justin Welborn), shares her naïveté as they both hope to leave the city of Terminus by getting on a train at Terminal 13. The plot doesn’t waste time and immediately throws the viewer into the chaos caused by the signal. Mya arrives home from Ben’s one night to find Lewis, her husband, fixing the TV with some friends. The TV begins to emit strange noises accompanied by equally bizarre flashing images, capturing Lewis’s attention. Shortly after, Lewis gets the “crazy,” killing one of his friends and forcing Mya into the hallway, where it appears many of her neighbors have also been exposed to the signal. The intensity of the situation is shown in the streets, and a scared Mya tries to get away with the help of another one of Lewis’s friends.
“Transmission 2: The Jealousy Monster,” directed by Jacob Gentry, focuses on Lewis’s plight of finding his lost love, Mya. Infected by the “crazy,” the audience follows the story through Lewis’s eyes, as his mind tricks him into mistaking a local woman for Mya.
The stark contrast in tone for this second transmission, characterized by a dark humor vaguely reminiscent of an Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) comedy, initially disrupts the extremely enjoyable “Transmission 1.” This upset is quickly assuaged, as it is in “Transmission 2” where actor A.J. Bowen, who portrays Lewis, displays an excellent and broad range of acting skills.
The final transmission, “Transmission 3: Escape from Terminus,” directed by Dan Bush, reverts to a tone similar to that of the first and presents the story from Ben’s point of view. However, while the first segment presented the infection of the signal en masse, this transmission provides a more claustrophobic view as the characters travel to and from buildings and houses. The viewer also learns that it is possible to transcend the effects of the signal by focusing on the surroundings; despite this, the film’s final third is the most depressing and bleak.
The directors’, producers’ and actors’ loves of cinema permeated the screen, and in an interview I had with David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, Dan Bush, Alexander Motlagh (producer) and A.J. Bowen, this passion was easily apparent. They all have had extended work in the underground Atlanta film scene and showed their support for local artists, even acknowledging the excellent short films made by Tech students at this year’s Campus MovieFest.
When I questioned the directors regarding the unsettling nature of the actual signal shown to the audience, they informed me that they had worked with a specialist, studying frequency modulations that produced agitation and stress in the viewer. It’s a good thing they never showed the signal onscreen for any extended sequence, as brief glimpses were enough to obtain the desired effects. Further elaboration regarding the signal may come in the form of additional movies, as the directors expressed a great interest in presenting more points of view from the people of Terminus.
Hopefully directors Bruckner, Gentry, Bush, producer Motlagh and actor Bowen have many more opportunities to create innovative cinema. The Signal is an excellent and thoroughly entertaining escape from the monotonous retread of films spat out by Hollywood.