In the late 1980s, there were some cases of broadcast signal intrusion, in which video hackers hijacked the broadcast signals with a series of strange videos. It was considered a federal crime. The 1986 Captain Midnight intrusion targeted HBO and ultimately led to an arrest and prosecution. 1987 saw the Chicago news on WGN and Doctor who on the PBS affiliate taken with videos of someone wearing a Max Headroom mask with weird distorted ravings over eerie feedback sounds. This last unsolved case serves as the basis for By Jacob Gentry Creepy tech-noir conspiracy thriller. Transmission signal intrusion wears his cinematic influences on his sleeves, delivering a highly stylized mystery that sounds hollow.
Set in Chicago in 1999, video archivist James (Harry Shum Jr.) performs odd tech work while spending afternoons recording television broadcasts from decades ago. James occasionally interrupts his monotonous routine with grief support group meetings to help him cope with a loss that still haunts his dreams. Then James discovers a surreal and haunting clip on one of the tapes that he believes is caused by an intrusion into the broadcast signal. Finding another like him sends him into a den of dark conspiracy and obsession.
Gentry immediately takes on a baffling tone with a nightmarish opening that sets up James’ emotional investment in his next burrow. A happy memory turns into a nightmare when haunting music indicates that something is wrong, the fog comes in, and a woman’s face turns plastic and eyeless. When broadcast signal intrusion videos show a very similar type of white plastic masked face, the seeds of obsession are sown on the spot. James’ drive to solve the mystery behind the hijacked signal is undeterred, no matter how strange or dangerous it becomes. However, moving on is not always that easy.
Transmission boasts a very specific and intriguing concept, reinforced by immaculate style. Gentry pays tribute to the works of Brian de Palma, most notably in the extensive use of split diopter shots. The cinematography is elegant, and the sickly yellow, green, and blue color palette lends itself well to the uneasiness of James’ quest.
But underneath the glossy exterior are some very familiar bones from a standard black thriller, right down to dark trumpet heavy jazz. James is a inveterate amateur detective whose technological expertise gives him the tools to find all the clues. He runs into potential red herrings and femme fatales along the way, all of which conveniently corner him in the right direction despite sparking interest. Instead of a complicated web of riddles and lies, Transmission He takes his jaded leadership down a linear, guided path, no matter how hard he tries to obscure it with vague plot threads or disorienting time jumps.
Even though Shum Jr. fully committed to the stoic, hardened by James’s grief, there isn’t much to his character. The narrative never really uses her pain in any meaningful way, other than a gimmick to fuel her obsession. Potential Alice Alice (Kelley mack) infuses some much-needed energy, but her character also lacks depth beyond her narrative purpose. All of which to say, this is a feature driven by its mystery, not its characters. The downside to this is that the story loses steam as it progresses. Worse still, the anticlimactic ending fails and robs a lot of potential.
The scope and style keep things attractive to an extent. So does the total commitment to its strange concept and nightmarish Android images. But it’s too opaque and superficial to support the overall narrative, further hampered by archetypal characters. With an impressive production design, there is a lot to like about this quirky tech-noir thriller, a technical marvel. However, dissipating energy levels and excessive moderation ultimately disappoint.