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Movie Review: Shortwave

Artsy sci-fi, a strange mix of pretension and gore.

Shortwave is at once exceptionally ambitious and completely insane. The film about a shortwave radio engineer and his wife dealing with the consequence of his having invented shortwave technology that can speak to lifeforms not of this Earth has remarkable ambition but lacks the budget and ability to meet that ambition. Part arty, pretentious nonsense and part low budget sci-fi exploitation, Shortwave is, at the very least unique.

The film begins with quite a good tracking shot as Isabel (Juanita Ringeling) leads her daughter into a bookstore and sits her down in a group of kids listening to a storyteller. Isabel then attends to the ladies’ room but when she comes out, all of the children, and the storyteller, are gone. Cut to some unspecified time later, a guilt-ridden Isabel barely registers emotions as she and her loving husband Josh (Cristobal Tapia Montt) move into a secluded new home.

Josh is an engineer working for a tech company that hopes to use shortwave radios to communicate with beings from another planet. The house belongs to the company and may or may not contain the secrets they’ve already discovered using Josh’s technology. As the couple settles slowly into their new home, Isabel begins to have strange visions related to the sounds on Josh’s radio, visions that she believes are clues to where she might find her daughter.

My description of the plot is much more direct than the film itself. Shortwave director Ryan Gregory Phillips wastes a great deal of screen time on arty pretentious nonsense. Shortwave is desperately padded by interminably long shots of Isabel posing in front of pretty outdoor backdrops. The blurry visuals at first seem like more arty pretentiousness until you see them in straight-ahead dialogue-based scenes and realize that the blurred edges may, in fact, be a shorthand to cover for the un-decorated portions of the set.

I don’t mean to be too hard on the film for being low budget but the film could have achieved its aims through tighter close-ups instead of odd wide shots that cover up the low budget with blurry nonsense disguised as arty pretense. The film alternates between being great looking in some scenes, like the gloomy but distinctive opening unbroken tracking shot, to being nearly impossible to watch during the blurred edge portions of the film.

The performances in Shortwave aren’t bad but are hampered by a B-Movie story masquerading in art-house claptrap. The villain of the story is some sort of shortwave radio based demon sex pest that may or may not be an alien(?). The baddie is first seen using mind control to have Isabel masturbate in front of it before it appears to mount her and the scene simply ends. Later, for reasons that are never revealed, the demon locks Isabel in a crawl space beneath the house and proceeds to give her visions of her and Josh’s deaths. Why? Who knows, neither the crawlspace nor the vision of the future have a payoff in any way that affects the plot.

Then, in the third act, things get gory. The sex pest demon, or is it an alien, we don’t know and the movie doesn’t tell us, uses mind control to cause characters to harm themselves and others. Why? Again, the motives of the murderous, demon-alien-sex pest are never made clear. The gore is well presented but instead of being jarring and transgressive it plays surprisingly quietly befitting the arty pretense of the film. 

Shortwave wants to be too many movies to too many different audiences. The arty pretentious filler clashes violently with the B-movie alien-demon slasher movie and the dissonant chaos which I am sure is meant to be transgressive and darkly entertaining is more WTF than darkly entertaining. I enjoy what the makers of Shortwave may have had in mind, crossing something arty with something horrifying, but the film fails to stick the landing. The arty pretentiousness is merely arty pretentiousness and the sci-fi exploitation stuff isn’t shocking enough to be jarring or even mildly surprising. 

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