In 1999, a Chicago man named James (Harry Shum Jr.), still acutely grieving the loss of his wife three years prior, toils at a job that suits his yearning for isolation: working alone in a basement media archive, methodically transferring VHS tapes to disc. His lonely life keeps lurching along…until the day he sees something on one of the tapes that changes his world forever.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion premiered at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival and was directed by Jacob Gentry (Synchronicity, The Signal) and written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall. It unfolds like a noir, a vibe helped along by its gloomy color palette and the wailing trumpet that punctuates its score. James is sort of a classic, haunted-by-the-past film noir character blended with the main characters in thrillers like Blowup and Berberian Sound Studio, as he stumbles across a dark conspiracy that seems connected to a very personal mystery that’s overwhelmed his life. But there’s a decidedly 1990s angle to said mystery that brings Broadcast Signal Intrusion into its own realm of technology, melancholy, and menace.
After James witnesses an act of video piracy on one of his tapes—a late-1980s nightly-news interruption that briefly shows an eerie masked figure pantomiming over a static-filled, dissonant soundtrack—he becomes curious and starts investigating other, seemingly related incidents. Almost immediately he runs into pushback; first a warning from his boss not to meddle in FCC business, then more alarming signs that suggest an underground network with knowledge of the intrusions would very much like for James to forget what he saw and leave it alone. Or else.
Armed with insights from a fellow tape-head and media-nerd BBS frequenter, who explains that the incidents are still “the creepiest unsolved mystery hack of all time,” and that the masked figure represents the main character in Stepbot, an ‘80s sitcom about an inventor who creates an android wife to care for his family, and some context from a local media studies professor, James rapidly shifts from intrigued to completely consumed. “Gets under your skin, doesn’t it?” the professor remarks, before advising James “Don’t fall down a rabbit hole you can’t crawl out of.” Too late.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion’s surreal, winding route through James’ paranoid breakdown allows the story to visit some moments in tech history that may be outdated, but remain fascinating—a PixelVision camera has an important moment, and there’s an encounter with a phone “phreaker,” played by a magnetic Chris Sullivan, that perfectly conveys the thrill of that specific form of anti-establishment rebellion. As the tension rises, and James’ tunnel vision narrows to his pursuit, the film shares his perspective, inviting the viewer to believe that James is indeed onto something incredibly sinister.
Helped along by Shum Jr.’s performance—best-known for lightweight TV fare like Glee and Shadowhunters, he shows great range here—the movie compellingly traces how a man whose psyche is already damaged can quickly become obsessed with something that’s little more than a shadow. There’s no tidy conclusion here, and it’s possible some viewers might walk away feeling unsatisfied. But even with some dangling threads, Broadcast Signal Intrusion more than makes its point about how easy it is for someone to become fixated on a version of reality they’d like to be real—no matter how terrible or dangerous that reality might end up being.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion premiered at SXSW 2021 and does not yet have a release date.
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