This review of Broadcast Signal Intrusion is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
Conspiracy theories have always offered dense and mysterious fodder for films as they often take the concept of a hero’s quest down some increasingly dark alleyways. The best center around the mystery, an increasingly obsessed protagonist heading down a rabbit hole, and a denouement that satisfies viewers even if it leaves the character themselves in the dark. Broadcast Signal Intrusion gets many of these elements down with an unsettling style, but its ending leaves far too much to be desired.
It’s the late 90s, the cusp of a new millennium, and James (Harry Shum Jr.) is a young man working alone in basements and dark lofts. He restores and repairs old home video equipment and logs television shows broadcast in the days of cable’s infancy, but it’s all mere distraction from the grief and uncertainty he feels over his wife’s disappearance years prior. James finds a new purpose, with an old motivation, when he stumbles onto a handful of signal intrusions interrupting television shows. The takeover image features a masked figure “speaking” incoherently — it’s creepy, indecipherable, and gone as mysteriously as it arrived. Who’s responsible, and could they be connected to women who went missing around the time of each broadcast?
Jacob Gentry‘s Broadcast Signal Intrusion excels at setting up its isolated protagonist with a black hole mystery even if the destination remains elusive. As with George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1993), grief and reason are overpowered by a need to know what happened to a loved one, and it’s a powerful force pushing James and viewers down a bleak and disturbing road. If only the final execution was as definitive.
The script, from Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall, captures the details of the period well as the early days of the internet offered little guidance in histories both distantly past and tangibly recent. These kinds of intrusions actually happened as signal hacking and broadcast realities were more open to outside interference, and Gentry presents them as snippets that are as innocuous as they are disturbing. Layering in a mystery to both their origin and purpose teases a thematic connection of sorts to Joel Schumacher’s 8MM (1999), but where that film builds to a concrete (albeit still disappointing) ending Broadcast Signal Intrusion feels content leaving a bit too much unanswered.
The mystery is compelling, though, and while James could have used a character buff Shum Jr. finds the heart of the man’s increasing desperation. As new details come to light, some answering questions and others posing more, James is unable to stop digging, as the only thing worse than losing someone you love is not knowing what you lost them to. He crosses paths with other characters, and their value to him comes down to how they can help his quest. That reality jives with James’ obsession, but it leaves a disjointed feel to parts of Broadcast Signal Intrusion including the presence of a young unhoused woman named Alice (Kelley Mack). She seems at first like Jamie Lee Curtis in The Fog (1980) or Road Games (1981) — an unconnected passerby who hitches onto the man’s wagon — but is that the case? It’s unclear.
To be fair, the dreamlike atmosphere here is entirely by design as Gentry crafts a world just to the left of clarity. James himself is actually having dreams, ones that share headspace and details with the video intrusions, and the sequences are endlessly creepy for more reasons than just a masked figure (which is admittedly very, very unsettling). Dialogue-free stretches where imagery and score (successfully sci-fi-tinged work from Ben Lovett) take over are given a higher priority to exposition and plot progress resulting in a film that’s just a bit of balance in its third act. Still, missing what isn’t there is easy to do when what is there works at capturing the imagination and fear.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion is an atmospheric conspiracy thriller in need of one more script revision (along with an insert reshoot as the typos in a newspaper headline closeup are glaring) to solidify its ideas. Not everything needs to be answered in a film, obviously, but most viewers want and need something concrete to hold onto. Leave us with questions, but give enough to leave us with the right questions.