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[SXSW ’21] ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’ review: Harry Shum Jr. shines in dim thriller

A nostalgic mystery.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion premiered this week at SXSW Online 2021, and it was a much anticipated sci-fi offering among the Midnighter film premiers. Starring Harry Shum Jr. as James, a video archivist in Chicago, 1999, the film tells a story of grief and paranoia.

James’s job is mundane; he transfers VHS tapes onto DVDs to archive things like news footage, and he fixes people’s old cameras on the side. He’s a lonely guy, whose wife passed away a few years ago; he attends support groups, but he has a hard time connecting with anyone. At his job, he comes across some disturbing pirate broadcasts that interrupted regular programming, and, fascinated and creeped out by the broadcasts, he becomes obsessed with finding out the meaning behind them.

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The beginning of Broadcast Signal Intrusion feels like a sci-fi/horror film, with James having strange dreams that are eerily similar to the surreal broadcast intrusions. As he begins to try to track down all of the pirate broadcasts, the film feels like it will be an exciting thriller. It’s 15 years after the broadcast intrusions, and despite the best efforts of the FCC and the FBI, the hackers were never caught. It seems like we’ll have an interesting mystery on our hands.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is, of course, loosely based on the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion of the late 80s, a real mystery that remains unsolved. Anyone who’s spent a lot of time looking into this mystery will likely be intrigued by Broadcast Signal Intrusion. It’s also got a lot of great nods to life in the late 90’s, like a mention of renting a tape from Blockbuster for a date (wouldn’t that be nice?).

James finds out that the day before each of these broadcast intrusions, a woman has gone missing. As James becomes more obsessed with this mystery, he becomes more convinced that the missing women and the broadcasts are connected. Unfortunately, this is where the plot starts to become a bit convoluted as Broadcast Signal Intrusion tries to be too many things.

What started out as a horror/sci-fi film with the unsettling intrusions and disturbing imagery starts to turn into a noir-thriller. The pacing and tone changes. It’s a subtle shift, but it’ll likely be enough to make some viewers lose interest. If the film had started out as a cyber-noir and not tried to throw us right into horror and suspense, the noir mystery likely would have worked better.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion

Queensbury Pictures

Broadcast Signal Intrusion doesn’t do much with most of the supporting characters. There’s a former detective who serves to ground James as he begins his investigation, warning him to not fall too far down the rabbit hole. It seems like most of this characters purpose is to provide exposition and some good one liners; his character is pretty much abandoned by the second half of the film.

Harry Shum Jr, likely best known from his time on Glee or in Crazy Rich Asians, is excellent as the bereaved and obsessive James. He’s relatable, and the best thing he brings to this role is a casual sense of humor. He makes scenes funny at the best moments with an irked facial expression or awkward timing. He’s also great at being more serious in suspenseful moments. Shum does his best to hold Broadcast Signal Intrusion together, but unfortunately the writing is too disjointed.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is not really a horror film. There are moments of horror in it, and the masked person from the broadcast is certainly creepy, especially when it haunts James’s dreams. Another discarded character James meets along the way, Alice (Kelley Mack), tells James, “sometimes you spend so long looking for answers that you forget the f-----g question”, and unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the problem with Broadcast Signal Intrusion.

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