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SXSW 2021 Review: Follow ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’ down a winding rabbit hole

Who doesn’t love a good mystery?

Harry Shum Jr. in Broadcast Signal Intrusion
(Image: © Sapkar Public Relations)

Our Verdict

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is an exciting noir inspired mystery with an amazing performance from Harry Shum Jr. Unfortunately, the uneven pacing and lack of context keep us at arms length from an otherwise intriguing story.

For

  • 📺 Glossy cinematography and the playful, mysterious score instantly set the self-aware noir tone.
  • 📺 Falling down the rabbit hole with James is easy, growing more enticing with each new revelation.
  • 📺 Harry! Shum! Jr!

Against

  • 📺 It takes some time to get oriented into the context of the films world.
  • 📺 The emotional core of the film often gets lost once we begin unraveling the mystery. Shum does his best to keep us grounded, but the script doesn’t always give him enough to work with.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is an exciting noir inspired mystery that doubles as a character study of a grieving husband, unable to move forward from his wife’s disappearance. This film’s atmosphere is immediate, from the carefully composed score to the shadowy cinematography. The eerie vibe prepares the audience for suspicion, making it even easier to slip down the rabbit hole with main character James (Harry Shum Jr.) as he begins unraveling a fascinating conspiracy theory.

The film takes place in 1999 Chicago, three years after James' wife has gone missing. Struggling to cope, one of his few interactions with others is a weekly support group where he has difficulty connecting with other attendees. Outside of those meetings, he has an online presence, indulging his AV tech interest by fixing up old cameras and recording equipment. This hobby fits well with his job as a video archivist, where he works the graveyard shift logging old TV broadcasts. Here, his only interaction is with an offscreen boss that communicates via post-it notes. In the confines of this dimly lit room, stacked to the brim with DVDs and fit with flickering lights, James gets his first glimpse at the mystery.

One of the broadcasts he is mid-logging is interrupted by a strange figure in a creepy, plastic mask. With its distorted audio and ominous visuals, the clip is as mesmerizing as it is unsettling. It comes with no explanation, as the broadcast simply glitches and resumes — but James is already locked onto the video. Deeper investigation soon reveals this to be an infamous incident, an intrusion where someone managed to hijack the broadcast to project their own recording. As he begins digging into the story, James is enveloped by his intrigue and it's hard not to share his determination for answers.

The imagery of the intrusion is unsettling and the question of its origin endlessly enticing. Conspiracy is obsessive for good reason — the thought of deciphering the audio, figuring out the motivation for the video and decoding its message is enough to get you along for the ride. The mystery is made more compelling when we learn that the case was once investigated by the FCC and FBi, but amounted to nothing. James’ curiosity is valid… which is where the trouble begins.

The further James delves into the mystery, the more he spirals, neglecting his work and mental health. As the story progresses, our need for concern is confirmed: the line between the validity of the mystery and unhealthy obsession begins to blur. To some degree, this is simply a coping mechanism for James; a way to distract from the disappearance of his wife and, at times, a way to explain it. His search for closure means we can’t always trust his judgement. Broadcast Signal Intrusion is almost effortlessly interesting with this premise — we begin as in the dark as our protagonist and as he works to unravel the conspiracy, we dig into the added mystery of James’ mental state.

Harry Shum Jr carries the film with steely grace, but the script leaves much to be desired, in terms of backstory for this character. Initially, the disappearance of his wife and his interest in tech are the extent of our knowledge. James should feel much thinner but Shum manages to tap into his humanity, painting a fuller portrait of a man whose slipping too far into something dangerous. He wears the conflict on his sleeve, his desperation for answers consistently on display, furiously compelling (and equally concerning).

Along the way, James encounters some new companions. Among them is a man seemingly driven crazy after losing himself in search of the same answers (Michael B. Woods) and a mysterious young woman who comes to assist James on his chase (Kelley Mack). Their interactions make for great drama, fueled by performances that lean into tension, resulting in distinctly uncomfortable interactions. 

However the further into the investigation we get, the murkier the film becomes. This is somewhat intentional, given James’ growing suspicion of those around him; his search quickly garners unwanted attention, which doesn’t mix well with his personal paranoia. Often, the audience is left to decipher between the two, unsure when his suspicions can be trusted. For the most part, this works in the film's favor, adding to our intrigue. But by the films end, we still lack resolution when it comes to both the characters and the grander story.

Things don’t quite fall into place, not helped by the film's uneven pacing towards its end. A twisty ending is generally a fun closer to such a mysterious movie, but the narrative never fully comes together. The film struggles, not seeming to know what ending it’s going for until it arrives. The final note doesn't quite land and, by this point, we seem to have lost sight of the film's more interesting mystery — James. 

Disappointing as the final note may be, Broadcast Signal Intrusion is well worth delving into. It’s easy to find your footing in James’ world and join him for the investigation. He’s a fascinating character to track and the film's neo-noir inspired atmosphere is fully immersive, making it all the more fun to play detective for 100 minutes.