Nightmare Code: Review

Nightmare Code:
Review

Every once in a while, I have the privilege of seeing into the future Dear Reader, and I’m here today to tell you it doesn’t look good for humanity. While I’ll choose to save my climate change doom-mongering for my day job, the possibility of a technocratic dystopia is only now catching up with the visions of sci-fi horror seen in days past.

Before you ask—no, I don’t come equipped with a crystal ball or a One Minute Time Machine. My prophetic wisdom comes from years of binge-watching classic Star Trek episodes, reading sci-fi novels, and most recently with the viewing of Mark Netter’s directorial debut of Nightmare Code.

Every once in a while, I have the privilege of seeing into the future Dear Reader, and I’m here today to tell you it doesn’t look good for humanity. While I’ll choose to save my climate change doom-mongering for my day job, the possibility of a technocratic dystopia is only now catching up with the visions of sci-fi horror seen in days past.

Before you ask—no, I don’t come equipped with a crystal ball or a One Minute Time Machine. My prophetic wisdom comes from years of binge-watching classic Star Trek episodes, reading sci-fi novels, and most recently with the viewing of Mark Netter’s directorial debut of Nightmare Code.

Every once in a while, I have the privilege of seeing into the future Dear Reader, and I’m here today to tell you it doesn’t look good for humanity. While I’ll choose to save my climate change doom-mongering for my day job, the possibility of a technocratic dystopia is only now catching up with the visions of sci-fi horror seen in days past.

Before you ask—no, I don’t come equipped with a crystal ball or a One Minute Time Machine. My prophetic wisdom comes from years of binge-watching classic Star Trek episodes, reading sci-fi novels, and most recently with the viewing of Mark Netter’s directorial debut of Nightmare Code.

Meet ROPER, a behavior recognition software that will have you rethinking the convenience of technology.

As part of their year-round programming, my friends at Other Worlds Austin have chosen another masterful feature film in Nightmare Code, and one that will undoubtedly change the way you look at technology in your daily routine. Already this film has garnered some genre acclaim by winning the Philip K. Dick award at the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction and Supernatural Film Festival, as well as “Best Thriller” at the 14th Annual Shriekfest Horror and Science Fiction Film Festival.

Nightmare Code comes touted as “The Shining” in a startup, as told by HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I’m here to tell you that’s nothing short of spot on. It’s a film with all the underlying fear of Kurzweil’s Singularity garnished with a nightmarish combination of noir and horror. Beware the gentle glow of your computer screen, my friends. We know not what lurks in the millions of lines of code that make up our virtual worlds.

When Brett Desmond (played by Andrew West, AKA Gareth the cannibal king from AMC’s The Walking Dead) joins the programming team at OptDex, a struggling tech startup, he starts on the fatalist path walked by so many noirish antiheroes before him.

He is brought on to finish a behavior recognition software known as ROPER after the former lead programmer went postal and killed almost half the staff. Brett is desperate for money to pay off his legal woes (think Wikileaks) and OptDex is desperate for genius-level staff who can see the program’s deadline met.

The story itself is told through the “eyes” of ROPER, which utilizes the surveillance cameras, as well as the cameras found on laptops and eyeglasses to monitor the goings-on of the office. Much like you’d see in a security monitoring station, the film is often divided into up to 4 ‘screens’ or quadrants that capture the many available camera angles.

At first there is a short learning curve for the audience as ROPER jumps between the split screen views, POV shots, and Skype-like face-to-face close-ups, but eventually, we’re trained (or programmed) to properly digest the story as it’s presented to us. Before long we’re glued to an empty screen in anticipation of what might enter its view. 

Similarly, as Desmond gets more and more buried in ROPER’s code, he too sees his behavior modified thereby signaling his descent into madness and paranoia. He becomes increasingly detached from his wife and daughter during their video chats and instead focuses his attention on unraveling the almost sentient nature of ROPER buried in the code.

“It’s a film with all the underlying fear of Kurzweil’s Singularity garnished with a nightmarish combination of noir and horror.”

Before his experience in the video game industry, director Netter believed that any two programmers of comparable skill would write a program that was 95% similar.

“I learned instead that different programmers come up with vastly different coding solutions…” Netter commented during the Q&A. “…meaning that somewhere deep inside every computer, every mobile phone, is the individual personality of a programmer—expressed as logic.”

By creating ROPER to predict and display human emotion, rather than merely interpreting what was said, the premise of Nightmare Code opens up a whole new realm of science fiction horror. Think of it as the initial steps towards a technocratic dystopia envisioned by Ira Levin’s “This Perfect Day” or the first season Star Trek TOS episode “The Return of the Archons.”

Gone are the days where nefarious robots like HAL or the Gunslinger are content just to kill all humans. Instead, we see ROPER enlisting behavior modification as a means of bringing about human complacency.

Of course, yours truly had to go and pretentiously compare ROPER to Alpha 60 of Alphaville during the Q&A with the director. In hindsight, I probably came across as ‘that guy,’ but there was just something about Nightmare code that stirred up the long-suppressed distress of seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s noirish sci-fi-mystery. At any rate, I was damn close to the real inspiration and subsequently got to nerd out with the director after the show. (So suck it audience members who disagreed with me)

Although we had a good long talk about Alphaville, Netter cites Nightmare Alley (which, unfortunately, I have yet to see) as one of the many inspirations for his film though his use of gritty fatalism draws upon a host of other noirish delights no doubt. I’d suspect he’s a fan of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, but I won’t know for sure until he and I continue our conversation later this week.

Regardless of the film’s influences, Netter has crafted a truly superb and terrifying thriller that will linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled. I for one have yet to look at my phone the same way since the Thursday screening at Alamo Village, and I suspect you my Dear Reader will have a similar trepidation.

It isn’t so much the fear of constant surveillance or the ‘Big Brother’ mentality. In Netter’s own words, it’s a movie that asks “how our mastery of computer code is changing our basic human codes of behavior.”

Be afraid my friends, the Singularity is fucking near. I don’t know about you, but I’m praying for a wave a destruction that’s easy on the eyes as foretold in Ex Machina earlier this year. Alicia Vikander—wherever you are—know that I’m putty in your hands. 

The Bottom Line:

In the after-show Q&A, Mark Netter (whom I owe a beer) commented on many audience members at previous film festivals and their reactions to the movie. Apparently, several viewers began taping pieces of paper over their phone’s camera to maintain a sense of privacy.

This is the dread that Nightmare Codes deals in, and it’s unnerving—to say the least—to be spurred to a self-examination of our dependency on technology.

Despite its small budget (some $80,000 or so), the film features outstanding performances all around, but most notably by Andrew West and  Mei Melançon as  Brett and Nora respectively. It’s a film that will satisfy your lust for blood, vengeful AI, and, of course, thrills and chills.

Nightmare Code comes with my highest recommendation though fans of the game System Shock or those of you who know the stress of a startup or programming atmosphere will have an added appreciation for the film. Also—for you conspiracy nuts out there—this kind of technical apocalypse is totally gonna happen, right? Pat yourself on the back before you get assimilated. 

Additionally (as a PSA), Bears Fonte, founder of Other Worlds Austin, says they make stickers specifically to put over your cellphone camera. It probably won’t help stop the AI takeover, but you can feel a little better when you go to sleep at night.

Look for Nightmare Code on VOD and iTunes later this month.