Studio: Indie Rights
Director: Mark Netter
Writer: M.J. Rotondi, Mark Netter
Producer: Mark Netter
Stars: Andrew J. West, Mei Melancon, Googy Gress, Ivan Shaw, Regi Hic, Paul Yen, James Parker, Caitlyn Folley, Bret Roberts, Albert Thakur
A maverick computer programmer uncovers a plot to predict and to modify human behavior through sentient surveillance technology.
Since facilitating a Julian Assange-style intelligence leak with his partner-in-cybercrime Anton, computer programmer Brett Desmond finds himself staring at hard prison time certain to tear up his family. Tech startup Opt-Dex faces equally dire circumstances. While developing R.O.P.E.R., a software system capable of recognizing human actions and emotions before predicting their next actions, chief engineer Foster Cotton seemingly cracked under pressure and downsized the development team using a pistol.
With ROPER 97% towards completion, Opt-Dex is still desperate to see the code completed. Brett’s background makes him an ideal missing link to delve into Cotton’s work and steward their revolutionary program to fruition. What Brett finds is even more disturbing than a conspiratorial police state fostered by a thought-crime-recognizing surveillance system, however. Brett discovers that Cotton may have cracked the computer code for recreating humanity itself.
Perhaps you read that plot summary and thought, “sounds intriguing as an idea, although not as a story that would make for the most action-packed experience.” You would be right. “Nightmare Code” is a stripped-down cerebral suspense story, along the lines of similarly budget-conscious thrillers like “Primer.” But don’t allow outward appearances to fool you into thinking that “Nightmare Code” is without thrills.
The entirety of “Nightmare Code” is shown through surveillance camera footage (real cameras though, not the blurry black-and-white kind) and video chat sessions. Despite that setup, I never once consciously considered “Nightmare Code” to be “found footage,” even though it technically qualifies.
The success of making the viewer forget the format comes from how natural the surveillance feeds feel. First-time filmmaker Mark Netter solves one of the most common “found footage” conundrums, an explanation for why cameras are constantly recording and always positioned in opportune places, by making the story’s setup part of the environment as well as the “Big Brother” theme. Netter ironically has a reverse problem of coming up with reasons for his characters to be in front of these cameras constantly, though. Brett conveniently sleeps in the office, for instance, and characters talk to themselves while alone to make sure exposition is clear, too. Such things aren’t outside the realm of likelihood for their behavior, but they do stick out as contrivances on occasion.
The true inventiveness of the film’s presentation is the frequent employment of a foursquare split-screen, reminiscent of Mike Figgis’ “Timecode.” Reduced to basics, the primary action in “Nightmare Code” consists of keyboard cowboys working at desks in a Spartan office. The split-screen technique is an interesting method of keeping the audience active when most of the scenes are passive conversations in white-walled rooms.
The quad screens provide a voyeur vibe while heightening the feeling of watching human behavior from the same perspective as a sentient computer monitor. It’s not perfectly executed. The additional angles do not always depict anything relevant, and some corners are intentionally garbled when only two cameras have part of the story to tell. But Netter has a mostly steady hand on how to stagger the timelines taking place in each feed while keeping it clear which square should receive the audience’s primary attention.
“Nightmare Code” offers a different spin on the traditional A.I. run amok storyline. The script doesn’t necessarily take the premise of technology paranoia into new territory. Yet the additional human element of making one’s self immortal by transferring consciousness into computer code promotes interesting ideas and dialogues about the science behind self-awareness. The theme of Big Brother surveillance predicting behavioral patterns does the same regarding free will and privacy freedoms.
At the world premiere Shriekfest screening, one moviegoer snored loudly twice during film. It was the kind of full-throated snort that forces the snorer to wake immediately while turning the heads of everyone else in the theater. (At least, I presume it was the same person both times. Either that or two different people took time out for a catnap.) Those with less patience for a film targeting the mind instead of sight and sound senses have thus been suitably forewarned about from where it is that “Nightmare Code” draws its drama and intrigue.
In a perfect world where Hollywood always makes sound judgment calls, what should actually happen with “Nightmare Code” is that it should be swallowed by a studio with an eye towards redeveloping it with increased scope and tighter delivery. Which is not to say that “Nightmare Code” is not effective in its current state. The film is definitely as good as it can be given its crew and its budget. But there is no denying a slowness likely due to its nature of being a freshman foray into filmmaking.
Mark Netter and company are clearly smart in terms of writing and clearly resourceful in terms of what they can accomplish given their restrictions. They also demonstrate literacy in filmmaking techniques despite limited experience. But “Nightmare Code” has a highness in concept that is not fully met at this level. This is a project that could capture a wider audience with slicker pacing and visual appeal. As engaging as it is, I can’t help but believe that a world-class editor with a seasoned sense of timing could cut this content into an even more gripping experience.
Review Score: 80