There’s a certain kind of solitude that cuts unusually deep, isolation that can slice right through the middle of a crowd. Broadcast Signal Intrusion is set in late 90s Chicago, but director Jacob Gentry’s visual universe of neon smeared empty streets and dimly lit rooms could be anywhere, or anytime. Eras change, but the moody gloom of noir is immediately recognizable, mournful horns fading across the soundtrack.
James (Harry Shum Jr.) is our prerequisite piece of damaged goods. Still stunned by the trauma of his wife’s disappearance some three years earlier, James lurches through life in a sea of his own loneliness. James shuffles between his work as a video archivist and his dingy bachelor pad, the only visitors clients seeking the occasional camera repair. The survivors’ support groups he sporadically attends fail to reconnect him with the world outside of his grief.
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Late one work night, he stumbles across a years old pirate broadcast while transferring a news program. The hijack is a sinister blast of static and garbled noise, uncanny valley rubber masks and brief bursts of improbable bodily fluids, shot like an early android was trying to machine learn the finer points of shooting a snuff film. The FCC and FBI never located the culprits or the meaning behind the break, or several related subsequent signal interruptions. James sees something in the tapes he can’t quite shake, even if that something is just his need for a distraction from his self imposed exile staring back at him. Despite several increasingly stern warnings to leave well enough alone, he risks what’s left of his life on a quest to solve the mystery himself.
Harry Shum is surprisingly effective as a down on his luck lone wolf, and his investigations have a delightful throwback quality to 90s cable thriller tropes. James’ quest is all shady back alley meetings, intense perusal of thick files, and obsessive scrapbooking of seemingly related reports and news clippings like so much unhealthy fixation wallpaper. There’s tons of casual period piece details scattered across the runtime, but unlike the loving analog visual fetishism of something like last year’s festival hit Survival Skills, Broadcast Signal Intrusion uses the proto hacking of phone phreakers, BBS bulletin boards, pitch perfect recreations of a throwaway 80s sitcom, and a thin fictionalization of the real life case of the Max Headroom signal hijacking to brew a tantalizing larger conspiracy out of the ephemera of the earliest dawning of a digital era.
90s neo noir inflected whodunit and 70s style technology as a corruptive force conspiracy thriller are two paranoid subgenre tastes that initially taste great together. As Broadcast Signal Intrusion continually widens the net of potential coconspirators, its general embrace of style over character development or narrative substance begins to wear thin. Kelley Mack is charismatic as a manic pixie dream stalker who then briefly joins James in his investigations. Chris Sullivan is compelling as a nerdy phone phreaker who taught some long ago classmates how to signal hack, and in his desperation to belong, may have indirectly unleashed something far worse.
The performances are all as strong as the nature of the script allows, but we never get to know any of the film’s characters (including James himself) as much more than stock types. The thematic dovetail of a tangible signal intrusion perhaps holding the answer to the crushing unsolved mystery that interrupted James’ life is an effective but still sympathetic means of establishing the obsessive drive that this sort of fare often hinges on. Rather than deepen the connection to any of the introduced characters or themes, Broadcast Signal Intrusion floods the screen with a sea of interesting ideas that add layers to the film’s main mystery, without actually explaining any of it.
This scattershot focus on added complexity without any real cohesion deflates the intrigue of the first sixty minutes into an ambiguous final third that feels anticlimactic. Misdirection and obfuscation can be devastatingly effective sleight of hand, assuming there was something lying beneath to distract attention from. Broadcast Signal Intrusion‘s execution is not quite as lofty as its narrative ambition. The vagueness of the conclusion not only provides no solid answers, it also seems to indicate that even the filmmakers lost the thread of the original question.
WICKED RATING: 6.5/10