Broadcast Signal Intrusion – SXSW 2021 Review

by Anton Bitel

Broadcast Signal Intrusion opens with a video recording that resolves into a dream. A woman runs happily through a field, and a man pursues her with a camera. Then she stops, swaying in the mist, her face turned away, and we get his, or at least his camera’s, point of view of her back, until she spins around again to reveal that she is wearing a grotesque, fleshy mask – at which point James (Harry Shum Jr.) jolts awake at his work desk.

It is 1999, and the woman in the dream is Hannah, James’ wife who vanished without trace three years earlier, and whom James has been pursuing though a fog of grief ever since. In a limbo left behind by  Hannah’s disappearance, James works as a video archivist (a job that involves endlesssly processing the past), fixes vintage cameras in his spare time, and goes to grief counselling groups, where another attendee, Nora (Jennifer Jelsema), describes her lonely life now as being like a never-ending dream, and a vain quest to make sense of things when perhaps there simply “is no sense to be made”. All this is programmatic for a dream-like film in which James will seek answers for his own feelings of loss, abandonment and despair in places that may not have them, as he tries to discern, or construct, a meaningful, acceptable narrative in an arbitrary and chaotic world.

While working on materials from 1987, James sees a programme interrupted by a broadcast signal intrusion – a rare if real phenomenon where hackers hijack a television broadcast, replacing it with their own video. In this case the jammed footage – all at once bizarre and unsettling, overcoded and incoherent – comprises a figure (James Swanton) sporting the mask of Sal-e Sparx, robot wife from the (fictive) Eighties sit-com Stepbot, and juddering and babbling in disturbing postures to some irritant sounds. Confused and curious, James starts researching what his geeky client Chester (Arif Yampolsky) refers to as “the creepiest unsolved mystery hack of all time”, and connects the channel hijacking incidents (there were two confirmed, and a third rumoured) to a series of cases in which women went missing. James is warned repeatedly – by former FCC Bureau Chief Dr Stuart Lithgow (Steve Pringle), and by the crazed MacAlister (Michael B. Woods) who has been investigating the intrusions for eleven years now – not to get drawn in too deep, but he cannot help himself, as the videos become a means for him to work simultaneously through his mourning and the mystery of Hannah’s disappearance. Along the way, he will for a time be joined by the similarly lost Alice (Kelley Mack) who, broken by a past relationship, is looking to renew her own sense of purpose – until James’ obsession becomes too much, and he drives even her away.

Jacob Gentry is perhaps best know for co-directing (with David Bruckner and Dan Bush) the tripartite sci-fi horror mind melt The Signal (2007), in which strange television transmissions drive people crazy – so it easy to see what attracted Gentry to helm Broadcast Signal Intrusion, which writers Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall have adapted and expanded from their 2016 short film of the same name. Ηere too, mannered and creepy jamming signals (designed and directed by effects maestro Dan Martin) will send James and other viewers – including us – down a maddening rabbit hole. For all his manic zeal, James is smart and meticulous, and his spiralling descent also leads him, step by step, to places and people that the FBI has failed to locate despite 12 years of searching. At the same time, James’ insistence on imposing onto his findings an interpretative frame that they struggle to accommodate, and to ignore the obvious and the economic when connecting the dots, marks him as a wide-eyed, tail-chasing conspiracy nut, increasingly unhinged from reality, even dangerous as, like Oedipus, he gets ever closer to becoming what he fears and abhors. 

SXSW 2021 Review] An IRL Unsolved Mystery Comes To Life in BROADCAST SIGNAL  INTRUSION - Nightmare on Film Street

James’ journey into histories both private and public comes with suitably retro stylings. It is not just the pre-millennial setting, and an investigation that leads back to over a decade earlier, but also a ‘rare antique store’ where clues are dispensed, and a range of technologies (betamax tapes and players, a camera that records video to audio cassettes, computer bulletin board systems, an ancient answering machine) which, even from James’ perspective in 1999, are long since obsolete. George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988, remade 1993) and David Fincher’s similarly Chicago-set Zodiac (2007) – both key cinematic reference points for the obsessiveness and paranoia of James’ quest – were notably made, or set, in what now seem historic periods. Meanwhile Ben Lovett’s score, all brass and drums, also comes from out of the past, aligning James’ quixotic adventures to the passé inflections of film noir. Yet for all its outmoded furnishings and backward-looking scope, this is also a film about today’s QAnon culture, showing how conspiracy can breed yet more conspiracy and take on its own life – and also how easy it is for damaged, vulnerable people to get drawn in, their hunger for truth and clarity just leading them to ever more uncertainty and madness.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a conspiracy thriller like David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake (2018), where our protagonist appears as slippery and suspect as those involved in the plot that he is uncovering (or at least imagining), even as it becomes ever harder to pinpoint the borderline where his nightmares end and reality begins. “Sometimes”, Alice tells James, “you spend so long looking for the answers, you forget the fucking question.” This is James’ tragedy: he knows exactly what happened to his wife (and indeed divulges this to Alice), but he prefers to pursue a more palatable, if messier, version of events to simply accepting the awful truth and finally letting go. James gets in so deep that by the end he has literally dug the hole himself. It is hard to see any easy way out for him now – and of course MacAlister has already laid out a bleak exemplum for James’ future.

“Grief can be a tricky thing,” Dr Stuart Lithgow warns James. Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a very powerful portrait of grief’s lasting, crippling force, and the strange, terrible things that it can make people do to fill its incomprehensible void.          

Ultimately we are left exactly where James is – on standby, nostalgically longing to restore (or fix) a past we’ve overthought and underappreciated, lost in circling ambiguities that we have ourselves helped create, incapable of moving on from the solution in front of our face, and struggling to track a simple story for all the noise and staticky interference. If, by the frustrating, unresolved conclusion, you find yourself revisiting all the film’s codes and signifiers, trying to build from them an alternative explanation for what is really plain as day, and if you decide there is more to this story than a phreaky prank and terrible delusion, than a grim event and a man unwilling to accept reality, all this is only because, like James, you want to believe – and it is a measure of success that this film (itself a broadcast signal) has led you to this perverse, contradictory position.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion played as part of the SXSW Film Festival

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