Shortwave is a 2017 sci-fi thriller about a breakthrough in sound that leaves a grieving mother caught in a nightmare.
I can’t deny that I’m drawn to films that are purposefully hard to unravel, especially if at it’s start I’m forced to consider a little more deeply whatever the heck I’m watching. A few good films recently have done this very well, creating innovate worlds that effectively entangle me into their dreamy-like stories. Ryan Gregory Phillips‘ Shortwave is one such film, where nothing seems to make sense, tripping me up with creepy noises and wispy visuals that certainly keep this oddly unique, leading up to a mesmerizing finale.
It starts in tragedy when young mother Isabel (Juanita Ringeling) heads to a bookstore with her daughter Amanda, leaving her in the care of a storytime employee as she races to the restroom. When she comes out though, she discovers the place empty, her child kidnapped. A few years later, she’s yet to fully recover, she and her husband Josh (Cristobal Tapia Montt) moving into a new hi-tech home to try and start over. He and his partner Thomas (Kyle Davis) are nearing a breakthrough on a shortwave radio signal they’ve been researching for years, strangely, Isabel seems oddly receptive to the sounds, experiencing hallucinations and unable to the leave the house without suffering what amounts to seizures. While a shattering scientific discovery is made by the men, for Isabel, it unleashes a darkness none can quite believe.
While the film puts a lot of emphasis on the science and the unimaginable terror it creates, the story is mostly centered on Isabel and her breakdown. It makes no effort to conceal the larger message of guilt and recovery, but layers it in a complex story where these characters face a more cerebral dilemma as the reality of what Josh and Thomas have accomplished creates a nightmare that has profound effect on them all. Phillips works hard to give Shortwave a spacey feel, with some literal blurry edges and long, slow movements where everyone sort of gazes in stoic ponderance as this very weird score full of windchimy pings and twangy strings weight upon all kinds of heavy dialogue. It’s certainly different.
There’s nothing ever very clear about Shortwave, its imagery and audio all sort of disconcerting, and designed as such, with the movie looking and feeling like it’s trying as hard as it can to be unconventional. A lot of it works well if you’re a fan of flexing your brain muscles as there’s plenty of challenge in it all, though it walks a little unstable on a line that separates great science fiction and guilt-ridden drama. It works best with the former, especially in the second half as the film fully commits to the horror, delivering some genuinely disturbing moments. It spreads itself a little thin and might have worked better as a chapter in an anthology, but nonetheless, remains an ambitious effort. Experimental films like this deserve wider audiences and kudos goes to both Ringeling and Montt for convincing performances, plus there’s Sara Malakul Lane, once again doing good work in a supporting role. If you’re in the mood for something different, something that will leave you asking questions, don’t hesitate. Shortwave will do just that, and more.
Movie description: Shortwave is a 2017 sci-fi thriller based on a theory of the origins of shortwave radio frequencies, Shortwave is an unnerving reminder that some stones are best left unturned.
Director(s): Ryan Gregory Phillips
Actor(s): Cristobal Tapia Montt, Katie Carthen, Kyle Davis