Posted on December 12, 2015

Nightmare Code (2014): Coding Humans?

Dawn

90 min   |  2014   |   (USA)   |   Mark Netter

Grade: B+

Synopsis: A programmer with legal and financial problems, Brett Desmond (Andrew J. West), goes to work at OPTDEX, a company trying to develop sophisticated behavior recognition software (R.O.P.E.R). Brett is pinch-hitting, as it were, for another programmer, Foster Cotton (Googy Gress), who went “Columbine” (as someone puts it) and shot several of the company’s managers and then himself. As Brett gets drawn deeper into the “code,” he realizes that it may be about more than mere behavior recognition—and that the code may not be confined to the computer.

Nightmare Code is sci-fi horror directed and written by Mark Netter (M. J. Rotondi also co-wrote). It is a cerebral film that exploits the increasingly blurred line between the online/computer world and the “real” world, a murkiness that’s been the subject of other horror films of late (Unfriended and #Horror being two recent examples).

I highly recommend this film: it is expertly directed; the dialogue is believable and thought-provoking (without being heavy-handed); and actors Andrew J. West (Gareth from AMC’s The Walking Dead) and Mei Melançon (who plays Nora Huntsman) deliver stand-out performances. The film is worth watching, above all, for its concept and for the unique way in which it visually renders that concept. I would fault the film mainly on the grounds of its predictability and consequent lack of suspense: I had an idea pretty early on about where it might be going, and I wasn’t surprised.

Perhaps the most frequent kind of shot in Nightmare Code is the split screen—divided, specifically, into four screens. Throughout the film, we see the action entirely through cameras—security cameras and computer web cams, mostly. But some (perhaps much) of the time, we see things not just through a computer web cam but through the “eyes” of the computer itself—as

1. Nightmare Code, split screen

R.O.P.E.R. (ostensibly the behavior recognition program) scans and maps the humans around it. The blurriness of two of the screens in the frame above suggests, I think, R.O.P.E.R. at work. But is it just scanning the humans, or is it attempting to modify, perhaps control and even re-create them?

Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear as the film progresses that R.O.P.E.R. may have become unloosed from the control of the programmers and is acting autonomously. In a chilling early scene, we watch video of two of the programmers, run through R.O.P.E.R.—and then we see video that the program has seemingly created itself, showing their interaction escalate into a violence that was only implicit in what “really” happened. R.O.P.E.R., it seems, is about more than behavior recognition: it can predict behavior and, as the characters soon realize with horror, it may well be able to modify behavior, co-opt behavior.

2. Nightmare Code, ROPER scanning

The relation between R.O.P.E.R. and the programmers who are developing it is at the heart of the film. Specifically, the film asks why the principal programmer, Foster Cotton, went on his shooting rampage. Did he act on his own volition—motivated, the film suggests, by what R.O.P.E.R. showed him of management’s true feelings of contempt for him? Or was Foster Cotton in some way taken over—possessed—by R.O.P.E.R.? Was it Cotton who went on the rampage, in other words, or was it the code? By the end of the film, we’re forced to ask ourselves whether there’s any difference.

One of the really interesting things about the film is the way it merges tech horror with more traditional supernatural horror. Strangely, one of the films that I kept thinking of while watching Nightmare Code was The Amityville Horror (1979, 2005). This connection wasn’t accidental: the smartness of the writing suggested it, mentioning “ghosts,” for instance, a couple of times—notably when Brett wonders if Cotton’s “ghost” isn’t somehow still in the code. And Nightmare Code, like The Amityville Horror, is about compulsive repetition—and about asking why certain events recur. Traditional horror shows us humans possessed by spirits and demons. Tech horror shows us humans possessed by code—or is it code possessed by humans?

3. Nightmare Code Cotton

Another brilliant thing about Nightmare Code was that the mise-en-scène kept returning to a poster of the human brain (see the shot of Cotton above, as well as of Brett below).

4. Nightmare Code, office, the brain

The omnipresence of this shot of the human brain—situated near but always outside of the actual heads of the characters—works to separate the characters from their brain. And this film is all about suggesting that what motivates humans—who we are—may be outside of ourselves and thus profoundly outside of our control. The brain has long served as a metaphor for the computer, has been used to model the development of artificial intelligence. And the truth of the matter is, our brains are about as separate from who we are as computers: we don’t know a whole lot about our brain and a whole lot of what it does chugs along without our ever knowing or controlling it. Just like the code of Nightmare Code. In the end, we may be vulnerable to possession not only by ghosts, demons, and computer programs, but also by our own brains.

In a truly awesome phrase, Foster Cotton says that humans are nothing but “cumbersome meathosts.” And we are, among other things, host to our strange and inscrutable brains.

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