Wednesday, March 2, 2016

NIGHTMARE CODE (2014): A Techno-Horror Story Told from the POV of an AI

Promotional still from "Nightmare Code" (2014)
Brett (Andrew J. West) and Nora (Mei Melançon) as seen by R.O.P.E.R., the A.I. in "Nightmare Code" (2014) - image source: October Coast


What if a security A.I. could not only detect people's intentions and predict their near-term actions, but could also learn how to modify them to suit its needs? How would the personality of the programmer who created the A.I. impact its future actions? Would anyone be able to control a such a human-A.I. hybrid? These are questions that have been addressed in films like the Johnny Depp vehicle "Transcendence" (2014). In the same year, however, an indie film took on the same subject. Read on to find out how the creators of "Nightmare Code" (2014) envisioned a story that involves the same questions and brought it to cinematic life on the screen.


Background


"Nightmare Code" is an indie, sci-fi, horror-thriller film that was made with a production budget of about $80K. Released in the USA in 2014, it won Best Thriller Feature Film at Shriekfest that same year and subsequently was named the Most PKD Feature at the 2015 Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival.

The film marks the screenwriting and directorial debut of Mark Netter, who applied his prior experience with video game production to its writing and production. Co-writing with M. J. Rotondi, Netter created a story based on a realization he made while creating video games:
Prior to that experience I thought that any two programmers of comparable skill would write the same program with code that would be 95% similar. I learned instead that different programmers come up with vastly different coding solutions, meaning that somewhere deep inside every computer, every mobile phone, is the individual personality of a programmer – expressed as logic.

But what if this personality, this logic, was sentient?  And what if it was extremely pissed off?

Story Summary


Brett Desmond (Andrew J. West, who played the part of Gareth in "The Walking Dead" in 2014), a recently-indicted super-hacker, is brought in by OptDex, a struggling tech startup, to replace its lead programmer, Foster Cotton (Googy Gress). Foster committed suicide after going on a workplace killing spree caused by an apparent nervous breakdown. Pressured by a commitment to deliver a new software product in the near future, the company's CEO promises Brett that he will use his influence to clear up Brett's legal problems -- if he can debug the software and complete its development on schedule.

The software (named R.O.P.E.R.)  is a unique suite of programs with some fairly high-level applications, including military, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism. According to writer-director Netter, it is
a high-tech software and surveillance system that has the ability to accurately recognize human behavior in real time.  R.O.P.E.R. (named so for “roping in” all the video in the wi-fi or cellular area) doesn’t just interpret what you say — it displays what you’re truly feeling.  Although we wrote and shot this film several years prior to release, before behavior recognition companies existed, we appear to have predicted that very thing.
With a tight deadline and only a small software testing crew, Brett works around the clock, sleeping when he can in the office. His only contacts with the outside world are videochats with his wife and daughter, his programming counterpart at an outsourced tech firm in India, and his kinky former hacking partner. 

As his fatigue and frustration increase, Brett becomes attracted to Nora Huntsman (Mei Melançon, "Shockwave Darkside" (2014) -- see my review), a beautiful and mysterious member of the testing team. But as he dives deeper into R.O.P.E.R, the code takes on a life of its own . . . and increasingly warps Brett’s psyche as well.

He soon finds out that R.O.P.E.R. had something to do with Foster's behavioral meltdown. As the team starts to bog down in software bugs and glitches, Brett's own increasingly erratic behavior begins to threaten much more than just the future of OptDex.


Commentary



Promotional still from "Nightmare Code" (2014)
Brett (West) encounters Foster (Gress) via R.O.P.E.R. - image source: October Coast

One of the key features of this film is that it was shot from the point of view of R.O.P.E.R., which is really an artificial intelligence (A.I.) program. This resulted in an interesting editing decision to present many of the scenes as split-screen video feeds. Netter explains:
In post-production we settled on the quad screens that checkerboard the movie.  The rule was to always think like R.O.P.E.R., whether editing over intricate visual mosaic or creating the 600+ individual visual effects.  The viewer feels that R.O.P.E.R. is telling them this story – and we believe ours is the first feature film ever told from the point of view of Artificial Intelligence.

Imagine The Shining in a start-up as told by H.A.L. from "2001."

As the remaining employees at OptDex find themselves increasingly affected by R.O.P.E.R., the audience is also scanning the screen wondering who’s going to appear where next, creating a highly active visual experience.
This visual experience works as a storytelling device, but it can be distracting at times -- at least until viewers realize that it is presenting clues to a "visual puzzle." Nevertheless, it helps to foster an increasingly claustrophobic paranoia that helps the film build to its climax. However, some viewers might find that they can see the ending coming, despite the complex, technologically-driven plot and the post-production wizardry.

Despite these drawbacks, the film offers strong performances from its three top-billed actors. Gress is creepily megalomaniacal as a genius coder seeking immortality via technology, no matter what the price. West is convincing as a cocky, outlaw hacker who realizes that he's met more than his match in Gress' character.

Promotional still from "Nightmare Code" (2014)
Mei Melançon as Nora in "Nightmare Code" (2014) - image source: October Coast

It's Melançon, however, who steals the show as a mysteriously smart and sexy coder with a traumatic personal background. Her character becomes the "final girl" in a horrific scenario that far exceeds anything she's had to handle before. Melançon is an up-and-coming actress (and former model) who should be on the radar of any serious horror or sci-fi movie fan.

Summary


"Nightmare Code" is a low-budget, indie techno-horror thriller that tells an interesting and edgy story that will leave viewers thinking about whether A.I. technology will eventually exceed the control of its human creators -- and whether it's a genie that won't go back in its bottle once it's been released. Although the story and the filmmaking are somewhat problematic, the film's cast delivers good performances that overcome these flaws. Overall, it's quite a quality product for its very low level of funding. It can be found on Amazon Instant Video, where it is currently a Prime selection.

TFK's Rating (on IMDb): 5 out of 10 stars



Disclosure: Clint Morris of October Coast provided TFK with a press kit, images, and access to an online screener of the film for review purposes only. This website and its author received no monetary compensation for this review.