Years ago, back in 2000 to be precise, there was a movie called Time Code. It showed four different movies at once on a split screen, although the stories did overlap just a bit.
Actually, the idea is a bit older and there was a 1973 psycho killer comedy called Wicked, Wicked, in what they called “Duo-Vision” with two storylines playing at once.
And, not too long ago, the Polonia Brothers did an odd little film called Alien Surveillance (2018), in which we watched what was happening on four security cameras, supposedly in real time.
But it is still a bit of a novelty, one which comes with a few drawbacks.
After all, when there are four separate “screens” packed into one screen, as in most of this film, then it gets harder to see what is happening on the individual screens. And if some of those multiple screens don’t switch to showing unimportant things while the critical events are taking place on other screens, then it will quickly become impossible to follow what’s going on.
But it isn’t four screens all the time. Nightmare Code is more than just a movie with four screens playing at once. Instead, it would be more accurate to see it as the screen of a lap top computer displaying multiple views of the building or views of the windows currently in use on that computer screen.
Not that we are ever told this.
It quickly becomes obvious that the computer shows us the view of events that is being generated by a new AI program called Roper. There is a deliberate selection process here, so sometimes one or more of the four screens are blank, while the program at times switches to just one fullscreen image for an important scene. At other times Roper displays unimportant computer pages or random security camera footage on some of the screens, forcing us to focus on the more important windows instead.
The “Computer Screen Movie” as it is often called was an idea that other filmmakers were playing with around the same time. Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows came out the same year, as did a thriller called Unfriended, although The Collingswood Story (2002) and Madeline is Missing (2011) had played with the idea before. Here is it used as a way to solve some of the problems with dividing the screen into four — the reduced image size and the problem of directing the viewer towards the right screen. That becomes far easier when there is someone — or something — in the story directing our flow of information.
The basic story here is simple enough: There’s a remarkable new piece of technology in town, capable of visually analyzing people’s behavior with incredible precision, one that will reveal almost any secret.
Or at least it would do all that, if the little startup which is trying to build it could ever get it working properly. Every time they think they’ve got the latest bug fixed, something else goes wrong.
And then there’s the other thing that went wrong: the genius programmer who created Roper went mad, slaughtered most of their staff, then committed suicide.
So they hire Brett Desmond to finish their product, hoping that he can complete it before the official release date.
Only he keeps finding strange and disturbing little things as he struggles to finish the project. He starts getting more and more desperate as his own personal problems start closing in on him as well.
And, in the end, even his boss and the other senior team members, and those in the company’s offices in India cannot escape the dire influence of Roper…
Surprisingly, Nightmare Code has a lot more in common with certain supernatural horror films than it does with your typical AI movie, as does the fact that it is constructed in what amounts to a found footage format. It reflects one of the most ominous takes on the technology, although the ending hits some of the same themes as Colossus: The Forbin Project.
Although I will point out that it is rather darker.
With any film like this, the technical storytelling choices they’ve made are going to get far more attention than the story itself. Mind you, if you told the same story through a more traditional method, it would lose that odd psychological edge that comes because we are aware throughout that an intelligence is watching, and turning its attention to the events we are seeing. There is a definite edge of paranoia this radical filmmaking approach give to Nightmare Code, one we would not have got otherwise.
And, with any horror film, the psychological mood of the film is far more important than almost anything else.
Yet there is a fairly tight and well-constructed story here, one with a solid and logical foundation — and a lot of very solid character building, even if nearly all of it is for Brett (with just a little more attention being given to his co-worker, Nora).
As always with this sort of bold and experimental film, it is more interesting for its unique approach, but that is unavoidable, I’m afraid, when you choose not to use a more traditional approach.
But, as experiments go, it is quite successful, and succeeds in places where many found-footage films fail.
It is even quite entertaining — and more than a little bit scary.
Particularly in an age when so many people are trying to create programs which do the same thing…