Imagine being in the middle of a favorite television program, only to have your television hijacked by unwanted and disturbing images. While the interruption doesn’t last long, what appeared on screen you can’t unsee. While this sounds like an old episode of The Twilight Zone or X-Files, these strange but true events happened in real life and serve as the basis and inspiration for the new tech noir Broadcast Signal Intrusion, directed by Jacob Gentry and written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall.
It’s Chicago, 1999, right at the height of doomsday prophecies and Y2K panic. James (Harry Shum Jr.; Crazy Rich Asians) works as a video archivist at night, transferring footage from one format onto another. He’s also still grieving after his wife, Hannah, disappeared mysteriously three years ago. His discovery of one of the mysterious and unsolved broadcast signal intrusions sets him on an obsessive hunt for answers. Who orchestrated the hijackings? Why? Were they all done by the same person? Is there a pattern? His search through the gritty streets and back alleys of the Windy City may uncover a mystery yet to be solved or may just be a foolish foray down a rabbit hole to distract him from the pain of his terrible loss.
Conceived originally as a screenplay submitted by Drinkwater and Wooddall in the FrightFest screenplay contest for New Blood talent, the project was matched to director Jacob Gentry (The Signal; Synchronicity) by Giles Richards, one of the producers of Queensbury Pictures, who ensured its development from page to screen. Gentry, known for his raw and sometimes violent films about the dangers of messing with science and technology, is a perfect match for the source material. Taking inspiration from such true occurrences as The Max Headroom Incident of 1987 and “Tara the Android,” Dan Martin (Possessor), who knows something about engineering images that assault the senses, created the broadcast signal intrusions in this film.
Cinematographer Scott Thiele nails the neo noir genre with the use of lighting and attention to detail. The camera often lingers on objects, making their importance obvious. And the way, we follow James as he walks or drives through the city captures the menacing mood of the urban streets. The jazzy score by Ben Lovett (The Ritual) heightens the suspense even further and brings to mind every hardboiled crime drama seen on screen. And just like in classic noir thrillers, in order to connect the dots, James must hunt down and speak to a variety of characters from all levels of the social order.
Harry Shum Jr., known mostly for comedic roles or his skills as a dancer, pulls off a convincing performance as a jaded night owl, desperate for answers and with nothing to lose. Alice (Kelley Mack; “The Walking Dead), who has been following the same trail, joins him on the hunt. She fills the role of both femme fatale and girl Friday on this adventure. Shrouded in mystery and reticent to offer details, she helps James get where he needs to go and may not be trustworthy. Chris Sullivan (“This is Us”) rounds out the cast as Phreaker, a suspect James and Alice hunt down as part of their search. Sullivan makes an impression, no matter what role he plays, and his brief appearance as Phreaker is no exception.
One of the more interesting unstated aspects of the film is how James’s grief informs and drives his quest. We see him visiting a grief support group and recognize that he’s isolated himself from much of the world as a coping mechanism. But when the broadcast signal intrusions occur, the way the film is edited (cutting between James’ memories of the intrusion and his last memories of his wife) demonstrates that his mind has made a connection between the two. It’s never spoken or acknowledged in word throughout the plot; we only see it through visual storytelling. This puts the viewer in the role of cynical judge, as well as fly on the wall. What does James hope to find at the end of the journey? Answers about who hijacked the broadcast signals — or something closer to home? For a man seems to believe his life no longer has meaning, the drive to find meaning can be a potent thing indeed.
Up until the end, watching James and Alice follow the breadcrumbs looking for the hijackers kept me invested. In a typical noir plot, the ending clears up all of the mystery and confusion that are part of the ongoing feeling of disorientation that comes with the genre. We follow along, in the hopes that all will be revealed in time. In the case of Broadcast Signal Intrusion, I arrived at the finish line with more questions than answers. It’s unclear whether or not Jacob has found the right person or if his search has brought him any peace. In noir, things go from bad to worse, but the anti-hero knows they have found the answer, even if the reveal is soul-crushing. The ending proved disappointing in this regard. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the journey.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.
If you’d like to see the original short the film is based on, click this link.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.