REVIEW: Broadcast Signal Intrusion [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 104 minutes
    Release Date: October 22nd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Dark Sky Films
    Director(s): Jacob Gentry
    Writer(s): Phil Drinkwater & Tim Woodall

I fixed them all.

It’s been almost three years since James’ (Harry Shum Jr.) wife disappeared and he’s yet to wrap his head around the void left behind. He works a video archivist job for a local Chicago television channel, transferring old tapes to DVD while generally falling asleep in the process, and fixes cameras on the side for less money than he probably should be asking. His only real human contact (he and his boss communicate via post-it notes at the recording dock) comes from the support group for grieving spouses he attends every week. Suffice it to say, James isn’t doing very well. His mind is reeling and in constant search for any distraction that allows him to turn off the never-ending memories of Hannah. Sal-E Sparx provides exactly that.

Not Sal-E Sparx per se, but an approximation courtesy of an infamous unsolved signal hijacking from 1987 wherein an unknown hacker phreaked two stations with pre-recorded videos of an android made to look like that fictional TV character (think the real-life Max Headroom incidents where someone in a mask interrupted “Doctor Who”). It’s the sort of phenomenon that would get anyone’s mind racing, so stumbling upon the first incident while transferring a tape awakens James to the prospect of an all-consuming mystery. At the detriment of his job, he jumps down the rabbit hole to learn more only to discover (or latch onto) the theory that something bigger was at play. What if these events were connected to missing women cases? What if Hannah was one of them?

Director Jacob Gentry and screenwriters Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall (who won a screenplay contest at FrightFest) use Broadcast Signal Intrusion to follow James’ nightmarish descent. After pulling favors (all official footage of the second incident was confiscated by the FBI and FCC during their investigation, leaving copies recorded by private citizens as his only means of viewing it) and meeting one of the agents who worked the case (Steve Pringle‘s Dr. Lithgow), James is suddenly traveling through 1999-era message boards and back channels connecting him to illegally obtained files and crackpot conspiracy theorists who’ve lost everything in pursuit of the same answers. Some say the women angle is a dead-end. Some say a third, unsubstantiated intrusion occurred the day before Hannah vanished. James’ distraction becomes a manhunt.

The conceit is compelling—especially once reality and fantasy begin to merge inside James’ mind. His dreams are haunted by the Sal-E Sparx android and thoughts about an old tape he has of Hannah begin to be infiltrated by that disturbing imagery too. Everything he sees and experiences becomes a part of this quest and the difficulty of discovering new leads moves from the simpler truth of there being nothing to find to the more complicated belief that powerful people are preventing his progress. What Gentry and company don’t ever quite do, however, is expose the paranoia aspect of what his grief is doing. James thinks this way because his mind refuses to accept that he’ll never know what happened to his wife. He’s manufacturing his own narrative.

Or, at least, that’s one possible truth. It could be that there’s no reason to focus on paranoia because it ceases to be paranoia when proven real. Things get muddled either way, though, because there’s no concrete division between the two. Should we really believe that the woman (Kelley Mack‘s Alice) who has been following James for a supposed unrelated reason is the first to crack the fact that a phone number in morse code can be heard on the first recording? The FBI didn’t catch that after a year of work? Really? How about the mysterious figure that number traces back to (Chris Sullivan) and his obfuscation (not to mention unexplained banging from locked rooms)? Is he hiding something? Is he even real? Is Alice?

By refusing to pull the curtain and show us anything that could separate fact from fiction, Gentry has left it to the viewer to either believe everything we see is real or everything is fake. There’s no middle ground. There can’t be because James is never asked to confront his own motivations. The result is a captivating story that forever keeps us on the outside looking in and thus at our own mercy where it comes to caring enough to keep going. Gentry and company aren’t interested in helping us. They slap our hand away if we even attempt to grab hold of something solid. Coincidence and conspiracy become interchangeable as James discovers answers either because they exist or because he conjured them into existence himself.

There’s excitement in that sense of the unknown, but also frustration. I feel as though the former outweighs the latter, but it wouldn’t take much for someone to believe the opposite since everything seemingly exists simultaneously as a red herring and skeleton key. Alice arrives as a code breaker only to disappear as irrelevant. Sullivan enters as an eyewitness only to leave as a dead-end. Characters shift from sinister to cryptic to harmless on a dime to keep James (and us) second-guessing whatever occurs next. People die and apartments are tossed yet we never see anyone trailing or tracking our lead to believe he isn’t the one behind it all anyway. Maybe it’s all static. Maybe he’s officially snapped. Maybe he’s been asleep at work the whole time.

The possibilities are endless because the filmmakers refuse to pick one. Is that because the whole is an elaborate metaphor or because they don’t actually know? Usually there’d be breadcrumbs leading to one single purpose (if not an overt declaration), but Broadcast Signal Intrusion possesses none. It instead delivers convolution and distraction. Recognize that hat? Good for you, but it probably doesn’t matter. Find evidence that confirms a rumor? Great, but did James really find it or just imagine it? We don’t know because we only see what his unreliable mind shows. We therefore watch it all through a filter that will never dissolve. It’s up to you to find the tactic satisfying in its obscurity or cheap in its ambivalence. The film’s success becomes a coin flip.

courtesy of Dark Sky Films

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