If you’re familiar with the real-life broadcast signal intrusions like the Max Headroom incident or Captain Midnight, then you’ll know where the inspiration for Harry Shum Jr.’s latest film, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, comes from. The film premiered earlier this year at SXSW, finally releasing on VOD over the weekend to a broader audience that instantly devoured the paranoid tech-thriller and started debating the mysteries left unsolved within. Jacob Gentry directed the script from screenwriters Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall.
Set in 1999 Chicago, Broadcast Signal Intrusion takes place in a precarious time on the cusp of monumental technological advancement. We follow James (Shum Jr.), a grieving man who spends his days cleaning up videotape recordings and repairing video equipment like Betamax and VCRs. He communicates with his boss via Post-it notes and rarely interacts with anyone outside of his grief group therapy sessions.
Since his wife’s mysterious disappearance, James has fallen into a routine that revolves almost entirely around his job. Then one day, he watches a tape that has a broadcast signal intrusion and immediately becomes obsessed. The filmmakers did a fantastic job of creating the signal intrusions, by the way, each one feels like something you’re not supposed to be watching with a serious dip into the uncanny valley.
The first intrusion is all it takes to push James down a dangerous, conspiracy-laden rabbit hole. He finds out that there is actually three incidents total, and each one corresponds with the date a woman went missing. The third tape, the only one James hasn’t been able to track down, fits with the day his wife, Hannah, vanished, further fueling his obsession.
No one has ever managed to catch the culprits behind the intrusions, similar to the real-life Max Headroom incident, which went unsolved.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion takes viewers down a conspiracy-laden rabbit hole
What makes Broadcast Signal Intrusion so fascinating is how it makes the audience doubt that there is a conspiracy alongside the many doubters James encounters in his singular obsession to get the bottom of a saga that might not have an end. Did someone genuinely mean to send a message regarding the disappearance of these three women? Or does James have tunnel-vision, seeing breadcrumbs where there aren’t any?
He meets several people tangentially related to the tapes in what sometimes feels like a wild goose chase. That’s where Broadcast Signal Intrusion stumbles. You start itching for the film to build into something completely off the rails or at least give us a big twist ending, and it never really gets there.
I appreciate ambiguous endings, and when you sit and think about how this movie ends, it gives you a lot to chew on. I just wish that the pacing had been a little tighter and that we had gotten to spend more time with James and his grief before the hunt began. There feels like a disconnect between the search for understanding and how James was before all this started. Shum Jr. gives an exceptional performance here as a man fraying at the edges.
Still, while Broadcast Signal Intrusion, particularly the final act, will be divisive, I think it’s one of those movies that people will try to decipher for a long time. That’s the mark of a good film, one that makes you think and refuses to leave your head afterward.
Gentry’s film takes viewers down a conspiracy-laden rabbit hole without ever letting you come out the other side. I also happened to watch this right after Censor, a similar paranoid thriller about video nasties. They go together quite well as a double feature—if you’re okay staying awake for hours obsessing over them afterward.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion is now available for rent or purchase on-demand.