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Simon Read [Celluloid 09.29.15] scifi horror thriller



While not as much fun as it could be, or should be, Mark Netter's unusual 'surveillance footage thriller' Nightmare Code just about gets away with itself, largely thanks to an inventive, solidly executed stylistic choice. The film plays out within four split screens - the quartered frame recalling Mike Figgis's Timecode, though without the extended takes - presenting footage recorded from security cameras and webcams installed around an office, placed top of computers and embedded in laptops. We see nothing of the outside world, instead provided a sterile corporate environment from which the story unfolds. That this kind of gimmick actually adds something to the film, with near flawless editing and transitions, rather than acting as a distraction, feels like a small miracle. Unfortunately the films falls down in other areas; its faintly ludicrous premise, which nevertheless feels like oddly familiar territory, its baggy narrative and relatively weak script and characters, all serve to hinder its impact, and that's a shame. It's all very exciting for the first ten minutes, as one gets to grips with the split-screen technique, but once we become adjusted, the film starts to feel like just another slightly dopey sci-fi.


The story concerns a well-regarded, though recently disgraced programmer named Brett (Andrew J. West) who is head-hunted by a sinister corporation and tasked with supervising completion of its new flagship facial recognition software. The program, named ROPER, enables the user not only to correctly identify human emotions, but to predict future actions based on an individual's body-language and behaviour. Brett is hired on the condition that he can complete the work on time, and with the promise that if he is successful, the company will make all his recent legal troubles disappear. As he gets down to business and meets the other team members, our hero learns that the previous lead programmer, Cotton (Googy Gress), suffered an intense nervous breakdown, prompted by his obsession with the ROPER system (which already operates around the office) and the paranoia he experienced in analysing its predictions. One morning, Cotton shot and killed several of his colleagues whom he believed were conspiring against him, before turning the gun on himself... So, how is Brett going to fare as his replacement?





As the story progresses, we learn more about Brett's personal life, his fractured marriage, financial debts, and the law suit filed against him by his previous employers. We also learn a little about his new co-workers, specifically the kind-hearted Nora (Mei Melançon), with whom Brett becomes friendly. There is an understandably tense atmosphere in the office following the shooting, so when technical problems emerge during the final stages of the project, relationships soon become strained as the team struggle to meet their deadline. An increasingly bewildered Brett discovers Cotton's video logs, including conversations Cotton held with the team regarding the possibility of immortality and the potential for the new system to mimic or even upload a human mind. One of the best moments of the film has Brett watch a video recording shot in POV style, in which Cotton wears a pair of glasses designed to act as a remote unit for the software. There's some fun to be had guessing which of his dismissive and rude colleagues eventually wound up splattered against the walls, as the glasses allow Cotton to utilize the program as a tool for judging potential victims. Brett becomes determined to work out what was behind Cotton's murderous rampage, convinced that there is a link between his apparent mental breakdown, and the issues Brett's team are now experiencing in completing the project.


While perfectly well-handled, these moments - the slightly hokey character development and revelatory flashbacks provided by the recordings - are rather dry filler as we await the moment the penny drops and the final act begins. To say the outcome is predictable is something of an understatement, for as soon as we hear Cotton mention downloading the human brain into a computer, we feel, rather jarringly, as though we've been here before. Back in the good old days (the 1990s) there were a spate of films, including The Lawnmower Man, Ghost in the Machine and, of course, Albert Pyun's Arcade, which tapped into similar themes, and it need be said that apart from containing a more tasteful use of CGI, Nightmare Code isn't a million miles away from these such bonkers films. Heck, even the title makes it sound like a goofy B-movie from 1993. It occurred to me that the whole enterprise might be a deliberate and knowing throwback to the techno-thrillers which emerged during the early days of the internet and virtual reality - but then, why does the film take itself so damn seriously? Why not have fun with the material, instead of attempting a straight-faced, quasi-philosophical sci-fi? Occasionally, it feels as though Nightmare Code has lofty ambitions, with its cool palette and techno-phobic ponderings reminiscent of Alex Garland's Ex_Machina, but it lacks the considered approach to script and characters required to merit ranking as a genuinely intelligent or thought-provoking piece of work. It's not goofy enough to be fun, and not subtle enough to be clever.


During its best moments, the film's stripped down, minimal aesthetic and focus on computer technology and those who tinker with it reminded me of Shane Carruth's Primer, yet while that film kept the viewer somewhat alienated as a result of its immensely complex plot, in the case of Nightmare Code, we're left at arm's length simply because the film looks so flat. After a while one can't help but wonder if a more conventional approach to filming the story might have allowed us to warm to the characters a little easier. As it is, the film's style is effective for the most part, but thanks to static, uninvolving master-shots, our investment in the story becomes limited.



Although the film's strengths lie in its editing and design touches, the acting varies considerably. West as Brett is fine, but instantly forgettable, while Gress as Cotton stands out as a particularly weak link. I never once accepted his character as a genius programmer driven to terrible acts. Disgruntled mailman? Absolutely. Tortured scientist? I don't buy it. Melançon as Nora, however, delivers a thoroughly decent performance, gaining our sympathy and respect from the start, while developing a character who seems straightforwardly realistic, rising above the, at times, rather silly material.


On the plus side, the use of webcam chats and surveillance footage, much of which is analysed and recorded by the ubiquitous ROPER graphics, does provide Nightmare Code with an appropriately edgy atmosphere. I particularly liked the way in which the program assigned and displayed descriptions to the characters' facial expressions, such as 'tense', 'confused', 'disgusted', or even 'aroused', which flash up, Terminator style, over the frame. Quite how this software makes the leap from interpreting the stand-offish behaviour of anxious corporate nerds, to predicting actual murders, is not fully explained, but we get the impression that this is the first step towards the world presented by Philip K. Dick in "Minority Report." I suppose that's kind of a cool idea, and Netter ought certainly to be commended for his ambition and the scope of his ideas, even if the result is deeply flawed.


If Nightmare Code is to be remembered for anything, it will almost certainly be its quad-screen style - not its characters, script, or performances. It's difficult to recommend the film based solely on this unique selling point; it is not a well-written or particularly exciting movie; the characters are basically dull; and the denouement will leave many disappointed, if not quietly amused (which I guess is better than being loudly amused). For the record, I didn't dislike the film. I felt it accomplished what it set out to do. I only wish it had set out to do something else.

Nightmare Code is now available to stream and will be released on DVD on October 27.



Recommended Release: Ex Machina


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