[SXSW Review] 'Broadcast Signal Intrusion' is a Compelling Film in Which Conspiracy Theories Serve as a Form of Deflection
Since the emergence of television, the glowing box has served as a tool for entertainment, family bonding time, and even as a friend to the lonely...
...However, some people find a way to disrupt the airwaves with a Broadcast Signal Intrusion. A broadcast signal intrusion is a cultural phenomenon in which someone hijacks a radio or tv transmission with the intention of playing some kind of message. While frequently used by evil geniuses and supervillains in classic tv shows and comic books, real-life intrusions occur much more rarely. A couple notable intrusions occurred in the ‘80s: Captain Midnight and the Max Headroom Incident. In 1986, an HBO broadcast of The Falcon and The Snowman was interrupted with a typed message from Captain Midnight complaining about the monthly price of the premium channel and threatening Showtime and the Movie Channel. The video pirate eventually got caught, but the following year investigators faced an even more curious foe. During an airing of Doctor Who on a Chicago station, a man wearing a Max Headroom mask appeared for about 20 seconds in which he spoke in a distorted voice. Despite a long investigation, the intrusion eventually became a cold case. The case never died for online conspiracy theorists, however. On Reddit and several other forums, the Max Headroom Incident still holds a strong pulse and helped lay the groundwork for Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion, which just had its World Premiere at SXSW Film Festival. The film never touts the claim of “inspired by real events” or a similar tagline but knowing about the inspiration for the movie definitely makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience.
The opening scene creates an enigmatic tone for the film as immediately the viewer struggles to understand the difference between a memory, a recording, or a dream. Starting with a curious sequence, we see a man and a woman spending time together in a park. The woman walks to the tree line with her back to the audience. The man films the woman with a video recorder but stops when he seems to sense something strange. Turning, the woman wears a white mask, which startles the man into waking from his dream. At first, the dream might seem just a reflection of a guilty conscience but after a second watch it will make you rethink the whole film. Broadcast presents some strong re-playability because the unraveling story makes the viewer second guess previously established facts and relationships.
Set in Chicago 1999, Harry Shum Jr plays James, a man who surrounds himself with electronic equipment and prefers recorded images of people over the real thing. Shum’s previous career on screen mostly involved singing pop songs and dancing, but nothing of this role resembles his Glee days. The actor does well emoting with his face alone; an important skill considering he spends most of the film staring at a screen or a person and not actually interacting with anyone. He limits his dialogue, but still explains so much about his feelings and failing mental stability with his actions and expressions. To demonstrate his inability to accept his loss, we see James attending a support group for people who lost a loved one. James attempts to ask a fellow sufferer (Jennifer Jelsema) a question, but distances himself from the woman and the answer. On his inner wrist, James permanently inked the day he lost his wife. However, the date seems to haunt him; when in his support group he scratches at his tattoo as if its presence irritates him.
Aside from the lead’s ability to portray the character’s struggles, the various locations also create a setting of secrecy. Quite a few scenes take place in a basement: a physical representation of buried secrets and isolated behavior. This aura of suspicion is especially present when meeting new characters. Indeed, there is an air of mistrust and danger with everyone James encounters. While working in a dark underground video archive, James witnesses a broadcast signal intrusion from 1981 in which an interview is interrupted by a person in a mask similar to the one from the opening dream sequence making strange, garbled noises. The short clip strongly resembles the Max Headroom Incident, but also holds hints of David Lynch or even Jan Švankmajer and the strange haunting images only increase with the discovery of each intrusion.
Broadcast provides a compelling intrigue story with each supporting character introducing a new possible path for James to follow. As the number of clues and possible participants increases, the film highlights the art and creation of conspiracy theories. Every person involved in the investigation believes a different theory and, as James becomes exposed to each one, he combines them to create connections which may or may not exist. Apparently, no one ever solved the mystery of the 1981 Intrusion, but thanks to the equally mysterious Alice (Kelley Mack), “friend” Chester (Arif Yampolsky), media studies professor Dr. Stuart Lithgow (Steve Pringle), former Intrusion obsessed MacAlister (Michael B. Woods), and conspiracy theory chat rooms, James gets nudged further into the story as he obsessively searches for every lead and rumor the late-90s internet has to offer. The storytelling does come off a bit lazy; whenever the investigation hits a roadblock, James meets a new friend with very specific abilities or knowledge to help push him further down the rabbit hole. However, the amazingly timed meetings of necessary figures might also play into the overarching conspiracy theory or even into James’ dwindling grasp on the real world.
A huge reason for the numerous conversations which will stem from this film is James. An unreliable narrator who struggles with existing in the real world before he encounters the Nite Pirate, his paranoia only worsens with each new stage of the mystery. He ignores the warning to never attribute a conspiracy to something that is probably a coincidence. In fact, he searches so long for the answer, he forgets the original question and eventually starts searching for a message to a completely different mystery. As James spirals further into the tapes, he neglects work, becomes more isolated, and turns down any possibility for human interaction. Using his work’s equipment, he searches for a message in the Intrusion. Stopping. Rewinding. Pausing. Obsessing. James analyzes and dissects every frame of the first two tapes. Both James’ past and present become fogged with delusion as he attempts to use the tapes to explain his loss. His mechanical mind frustrates him when thinking about his wife because he does not have the answer for why she is gone. He wants an explanation and is convinced the solution exists.
Just as with the development of conspiracy theories, different people will fixate on different evidence presented in the film, so Broadcast will create quite a few conversations about who knew what, who was involved, and what was solved. After the first, second, or even third viewing, audiences will find they each take away their own conclusion. The film does eventually reach an end. Possibly not the end, but it fits into the new reality created by the Intrusion, so some viewers might feel closure. Broadcast Signal Intrusion pulls from some peculiar events and follows some of the mad-capped theories the internet invented to explain the Max Headroom incident. The original Intrusion exists on YouTube, so I highly recommend watching the clip before jumping into Gentry’s reimagining. Just be warned: you might get sucked into the mystery and find yourself scouring the internet for answers.
By Amylou Ahava
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