Broadcast Signal Intrusion follows video archivist James (Harry Shum, Jr.), a nocturnal loner who spends most of his nights staring into fuzzy monitors, hoping to morph forgotten static and noise into meaningful images. One night, during the taping of a cable station’s otherwise ordinary nightly news, he catches an inexplicable and bizarre video: that of a woman with latex skin the color of porcelain, sitting in a room slightly too small for her, humming quietly. One could mistake her for a doll if it weren’t for the glinting black eyes moving underneath that placid surface. As a loner is wont to do, James quickly becomes obsessed with the sinister woman, attempting to unravel the mystery behind this message. These mysterious broadcasts recall those from the 1987 ‘Max Headroom’ incident, in which a Chicago network was repeatedly intercepted by strange images of a mumbling man in a plastic mask. It must be said, however, that the plot is most reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, in which a pirate broadcast depicting strange acts of BDSM and mutilation caused its viewers to lose their minds.
Though unlike Videodrome, Broadcast Signal Intrusion is more concerned with this technology than the human flesh operating it. Here, hardware does not take on the organic quality of veiny, pulsing skin — rather, human skin is rendered flat, plastic, hollow. In the 80s, it was feared that looming technological advances would turn safe, manageable hardware into unstoppable self-aware viruses. However, in the 2020s, it seems the greater anxiety is that we will transform, that we are at the tipping point of losing all which makes us human. It’s an interesting paradox that begs to be unraveled, but Broadcast ultimately lacks the faith required to dive down this rabbit hole.
The film is too reverential of old-fashioned video cameras and clunky tapes to really dig its claws into such modern fears and genuinely push these technophobic musings into the 21st century. Make no mistake, Broadcast Signal Intrusion is set in 1999. Not the real 1999, but rather a nostalgic millennial’s imagined version of 1999. (In case you ever forget, a glib remark about the superior resolution of Betamax will remind you.) It’s one thing for the protagonist to find comfort in the aesthetics of wires, gears, and pixels; it’s another for the men behind the camera to feel exactly the same way as him. Is the point of the film to critique this tendency of boys to get lost in their toys, to prefer machines over the far more complicated inner-workings of the human soul? If that is the message here, then the unabashed techno-fetishism undoes it.
Perhaps if these aesthetics were incorporated into Broadcast Signal Intrusion’s visual language it would feel less gimmicky. Director Jacob Gentry shot Broadcast on sharp, Vimeo-staff-pick digital, color graded to perfection. Never do we get the feeling that we shouldn’t be seeing these broadcasts, or that these tapes are genuinely haunted. They feel too recent, too professional, too overwrought. Skimming the Wikipedia page for the real-life broadcast incident that inspired the film’s making is more frightening than anything that is offered here. One could argue that the cleanliness and artificiality are an extension of the plasticity infecting the characters, but it hardly feels intentional in this case.
The greatest shortcoming of the movie is that it is a mystery film lacking a real mystery. To tread the line between fetishistic worship and finger-wagging criticism of technology is forgivable (it could be argued that Videodrome does this), but losing the audience’s attention altogether is a far greater sin. The latter half of Broadcast descends into a repetitive wash of interrogations, creepy videos, and James peeking around dusty, decrepit spaces. These scenes rarely push the narrative further or deepen the world. One gets the feeling that screenwriters, Tim Woodall and Phil Drinkwater, have hit a wall by the time the sixty minute mark rolls around.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion wants nothing more than to be compared to classic thrillers drenched in suffocating paranoia, but in actuality it recalls a more recent misguided film: 2018’s overwrought LA neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. Both films are similar in that they are about wiry dorks chasing after imaginary girls they want to save. At least James, played by the very game Henry Shum Jr., is much more sympathetic than his misogynistic counterpart in Silver Lake. Shum, Jr. even manages to be charming at times, despite the clunky dialogue he’s forced to deliver. In those rare moments he’s afforded to swagger around under the LA streetlights, Shum, Jr. transforms from a glazed-eyed loser into a Raymond Chandler antihero with smolder to spare, his handsome and sharp features adding a touch of Old Hollywood glamour to the affair. It’s a welcome reprieve, but not enough to save this mostly misguided project.
Haunted snuff videos are an undeniably rich category of horror to explore, but their imagery cannot suffice for a substantial plot. Predecessors like The Ring and Videodrome succeed because they supply both memorable scares and a narrative worth following. By the time the credits roll in Broadcast, we can hardly remember how we got to the end. It’s less a film and more an impression of eeriness, like that of a half-forgotten dream: replete with striking images, to be sure, but ones that ring meaningless and hollow.