You better be paying close attention during the 90-minute run-time of Nightmare Code. A missed word or visual, here or there, and you might miss a small byte of information that’s key to the story. A lot happens and sometimes it feels like an information dump. The quartered, split screen often used adds to what at times reaches an information overload. However, as an engineer, my geek-side was significantly tweaked. I’ll also admit, it took me three viewings to fully understand (at least, I think I do) the intricacies of the story and the possible interpretations of the conclusion.
Nightmare Code is set in a tech startup company working on a $50,000,000 contract with a product delivery due date looming only one month away. The contract is for the development of ROPER, which is comprised of “a suite of pattern recognition capabilities, which are both analytic and predictive. It harvests multiple input streams, surveillance videos, phone conversations, etc.; analyzes facial and body movements; and provides probabilistic predictions of near term behavior.” ROPER can be used to predict consumer choices or even criminal activities before they are committed. Recently, their “lead developer slaughtered his management team and then blew his brains out.” Consequently, the company is in imminent danger of defaulting on the contract.
The investors in the startup bring in Brett (Andrew J. West), a genius programmer, to get ROPER development back on schedule. As the story progresses, we learn that Brett is fighting a legal battle over his public release of top secret information while with his previous employer and he sees prison time in his future. He is in desperate need of money to support his wife and daughter and to fund his legal defense. One of ROPER’s investors, Ronald Dumaurier (Nicholas Guest), promises that they can make his legal problems go away if Brett can complete the project on time.
Brett takes up residence in the company lounge and during the day, he works on Quality Assurance and debugging with the four remaining members of the QA Team – Nora (Mei Melançon), Kevin (Reginald Huc), Louis (Jamie Parker), and Ray (Paul Yen). At night, he gets updates via Skype from Karthik (Albert Thakur) and Alex (Ivan Shaw), who are working on completing the code in Mumbai. Brett also Skypes with his ex-partner, Anton (Bret Roberts), about their legal problems and eventually, about ROPER. Anton is living it up with Radova (Tonya Kay), a nymphomaniac, but agrees to find time to look over ROPER’s source code in an effort to help Brett. Finally, Brett frequently communicates with his wife, Jenn (Caitlyn Folley), and daughter, Lacey (Isabella Cuda), whose birthday party he has missed. All in all, we have Brett with the four programmers in the states, Alex and Karthik and team in Mumbai, Anton and Radova living a life of excess in Europe, and Jenn and Lacey dealing with lawyers in Chicago.
That’s pretty much the cast of characters with the exception of Foster Cotton (Googy Gress), the genius coder behind ROPER and the same person that killed the management team and ate his gun.
Even though Foster committed suicide prior to the timeline of the film, he makes frequent appearances through computer screens and archived videos. As it turns out, Foster had his own vision of what ROPER could be and had reached that vision before eating his gun. As Kevin explains, ROPER’s “Heart of Darkness” is the Behavior Recognition Kernel. However, Foster’s vision is more an ultimate Behavior Modification Kernel. Indeed, the word “roper” can refer to someone who lures prospects or customers into a fixed game. Going a step further, as Anton puts it, ROPER’s not just Artificial Intelligence, but more like Artificial Life. And as Karthik says in his final Skype with Brett, “You don’t find the bug in the code. The code finds the bug in you.”
I’ve tried not to give too much away, but most of what I’ve revealed is disclosed, or at least strongly hinted, early on. Keeping in mind that Nightmare Code sits squarely in the genres of science fiction and horror, I’m sure you can imagine various horrific outcomes from the setup. Similar to what Joseph Conrad wrote about his novella, Heart of Darkness, “… the last pages of Heart of Darkness … makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad ….,” the last third of Nightmare Code moves the possibilities to another plane beyond Foster’s rampage and suicide.
The plot developments and conclusion are open to multiple interpretations, adding to my intrigue with this film.
Essentially, Nightmare Code can be classified as a found footage film. Everything we see on screen is shot by either surveillance cameras or cameras on electronic devices such as laptops, smart phones, or an eyeglass-mounted device called ROPER Mobile. The video feed must then pass through the system, where it is processed and recorded, before being viewed on a similar electronic device. At different times during the film, you will simultaneously see anywhere from one to four screens containing active shots in a split screen format. Sometimes the multiple views are of the same action from different angles; sometimes they occur during the same time but are sourced from cameras at different locations; sometimes four different locations are viewed at four different times; and sometimes there’s a combination of these variations. However, the majority of the time, there is either a single-shot screen or only one or two panels of the 4-part split screen that contain important content.
Don’t get me wrong, it does take some getting used to. However, the format seems perfectly suited to this film and allowed the filmmakers to provide more information than usual to the viewers. From a viewer’s perspective, I was a little stressed at first, trying decide on which screen to focus to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I can see how that might be irritating enough to ruin the film for some people. Contrary to many found footage films where what you want to see is just out of frame, Nightmare Code provides more than can be seen in a single frame. I was fascinated by the technique and figuring out how I could best “mine” the information it presented. I also think the stress it created had the effect of heightening the tension of the film. But as I said, the technique is not for everyone. Depending on the viewer’s personality type, the format can be seen as information rich or confusion rich.
The filmmakers – director Mark Netter, co-writers Netter and M.J. Rotondi, editor Kyle Goodrich, and cinematographer Robert Fernandez – do a masterful job bringing their vision to the screen. In the world of software development – characterized by confusing acronyms, impenetrable jargon, secrecy, and fast-paced development – the split screen presentation is a perfect metaphor for the microcosm in which Nightmare Code takes place. Despite the complex environment, the story is told very concisely and effectively. Difficult concepts are concisely explained and information rich segments are alternated with scenes of relative inactivity that give the viewer time to mentally regroup and refocus. However, one problem with “conciseness” is that a single missed scene, or even a missed word in certain scenes, could change the viewer’s understanding or interpretation.
The entire cast are their characters. In particular, I want to point to Andrew J. West, who, as Brett, is on screen for most of the movie. You may remember West from a stint as Gareth in the Terminus episodes of The Walking Dead. In Nightmare Code, he does an excellent job developing Brett as a sympathetic character ranging from geek genius to caring father to guilt-ridden husband and father. The scenes of West’s (Brett’s) Skypes with Isabella Cuda (his daughter) and Caitlyn Folley (his wife) are standout performances from all three actors and perfectly set up Brett’s motivation and inner conflict.
I’d also like to mention Tonya Kay who’s other work includes her stellar role as Rachael, one of the leads in Bastard (2015). Even though she had a small part in Nightmare Code, it was such a different character that I didn’t realize it was her until the end credits. I look forward to seeing future work from her.
Maybe it’s karma, or maybe it’s just that Doc Rotten has me pegged (wait, I did choose a couple of those myself), but I seem to keep reviewing films where I’m not exactly sure what happens, even after two or three viewings. As long as the cues and clues are consistent, the characters actions make sense within the story, and the acting is decent, I’m in. Now add the techno-geek factor and the machine vs. human, AI/AL vs. humans, behavior recognition vs. behavior modification vs. behavior manipulation philosophical debates of Nightmare Code, and I think I’m in love. After one viewing I was thinking a 3 out of 5 stars. After my second viewing, I upped that to a 3.5. But then there was the third viewing which surfaced one more interpretation. I feel like I’m fighting against the wind of the Grue Crew’s HNR Podcast #138, but I’m giving Nightmare Code a 4 out of 5 stars. And as a blues fan, I really wish I could figure out why three of the main characters are singing Big Joe Williams’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” right before significant story events. Maybe that’ll come in the fourth viewing. But that’s just me.
Nightmare Code (4 / 5)