Lionsgate // 2003 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 8th, 2003
I've got some questions that are guaranteed to shake you up...but no answers.
Enter the oppressively moody world of Sarah Novak. She has an overprotective cop father riding her to be more popular and normal. Her mother was the recent victim of a car accident in which Sarah herself was also involved. And she finds herself morbidly addicted to a street level riddle mystery game, a strange personal competition where puzzles are spray painted around the city of Toronto. Urban legend has it that when one has an answer, they go to a certain abandoned building and graffiti their answer. Eventually, when enough answers are given, the player will witness "The Design," the overriding system that explains the entire universe, from its seemingly random chaos to scientifically logical elements. Thanks to Vern, a comic book shop owner and Curran, a creepy rich kid in her class at college, Sarah becomes even more obsessed with these epic citywide puzzles, hoping that she will reach the end and use the revelations to understand her mother's recent death. But there is a real threat in taking the Q&A quest too seriously. A woman named Emily Gray made it all the way to the end, and it left her in a homicidal state. She has just recently been released from a mental institution after a five-year stint for attempting to drown a child, and it seems that everyone involved in the enigma filled activity senses something sinister in the works. Is it all in their mind, or is there really some underlying evil driving the so-called Nemesis Game?
Nemesis Game is that most potentially irritating of movie types: the big universal mystery film. It sets itself up to offer a surprise revelation at its finale that will justify all of the strange goings on and bizarre circumstances which came before. As part of its plot, buried beneath the "riddle me this" atmospheric falderal and symbolic claptrap is a supposed grand idea, one that if we patiently sit by and wait for the cinematic events to unfold, will eventually reveal itself in all its "was well worth it" glory. There are several examples of films like these: Soylent Green with its processed people patties; Planet of the Apes, where it ended up being Earth all along; or Pi, where a warped genius' code breaking skills may have lead to the discovery of God. The latter film, the first work of brilliant director Darren Aronofsky, tackled some of the same issues and ideals as Nemesis Game. Both films propose that the seeming random order of the universe is actually the work of an ordered, programmed codex, a very specific, elite, and elusive way of looking at things. In Pi, it was a number system that proved, perhaps, the existence of a Supreme Being. In Nemesis Game, it's some goofy thing called "The Design." But unlike this purposefully obtuse Canadian/New Zealand/English phlegm, Pi paid off. It gave you answers and hinted at consequences. Nemesis Game on the other hand, is a complete crotch tease of a movie, letting you and your patience on that it will get to a friggin' point at the end of its 88 minutes and then -- POOF! -- bolting the back seat without finishing the job. We never learn what "The Design" is -- NEVER! We never understand why people had to die/kill once they saw/understood it. And we never get the necessary concluding tidbits of information that make all the hinted at inferences come together as a cohesive, understandable plot.
Imagine The Matrix without the "life is a computer simulation" revelation or The Sixth Sense minus the "Willis is dead" discovery. How would you react if a secret like that was never revealed? Or worse, say The Crying Game has Dil seduce Fergus and when the camera pans down in the now famous he/she penis disclosure, all we see instead is a pair of Spider-man Underoos. Adding insult to idiocy, they'd add a quick cut to Stephen Rae's unemotional face to further the confusion. Perhaps you'd shout "cheat" or "rip-off" at the screen and demand a refund. Only the desperate would try to wade through the vagueness and try to imply an answer. This is the really annoying aspect of Nemesis Game. It sets up a whole dynamic, an idea that there is some special eye-opener to be experienced if you patiently wallow through the nursery school brainteasers and odd character behavior and coincidences, but then forgets to provide...anything. It thrusts us into existing circumstances between father and daughter, woman and man, people versus puzzles, and humans versus the enormous complexity of the infinite and asks us to accept it all immediately. It metes out necessary background in minor doses and towards the end things are actually starting to make more sense. But then -- BANG! -- like a far more obtuse version of the final shot in The Blair Witch Project, something happens "in video camera" (one of the characters uses it to record...stuff...) and we are left holding the narrative bag. Fade to black, up with the credits. No matter how involving (and it is) or entertaining (and parts are) or occasionally clockwork clever it is (it happens twice), Nemesis Game doesn't give us enough rules of engagement to understand or accept the finale. Like the uninformed watching a cricket or rugby match, Nemesis Game is intermittently interesting, but without complete disclosure it becomes hard to care about or understand, ultimately, anything that happens.
Lions Gate Entertainment offers Nemesis Game in a fairly fancy bonus laden DVD set. Problem is, the extras don't make up for a poor transfer or the even worse movie made from it. The 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic image is grainy and filled with pixelization, especially in the fade to black scene transitions. Occasionally, because of the films washed out green and gray color scheme this is not a big problem, but it really adds nothing but visual noise to an already annoying art design. Sonically, we get a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, which provides minimal aural ambience. Moving through the added material, we have a trailer that does an equally deceptive job of making this already misleading movie into a Dungeons and Dragons style role playing game which has gnarly twists and groovy turns around every corner. The behind the scenes featurette is no more enlightening, as everyone speaking is convinced they are working on a supremely intelligent and satisfying little thriller that makes complete sense to them. That leaves us with the commentary. It is self-serving and mired in bloated egotism to say the least. Director Jesse Warn and producer Matthew Metcalfe stop several times throughout the course of their dissection of the meaning of the film to thank cast and crew, marvel at wonderful shots, and express their overwhelming pleasure at the intricate plot they've created. You can hear the good intentions pouring forth as they defend their version and vision of what has happened. In the end, they hint that the entire film may have simply been an exercise in sadism between many sick, like-minded murderers (Sarah just accidentally stumbled upon it), but that doesn't make Nemesis Game any better. It only makes it that much more unsuccessful in its storytelling.
When push comes to puss, this fetid film is an illusory exercise in set-up and subvert. While it's hard to gauge if Nemesis Game would have been a better cinematic experience if it had revealed at the end that Satan was "The Design" or that the universe was run by an alien or computer intelligence, it's safe to say that without any reasonable, rational, logical, or even evident conclusion (and even the incredibly trite attempt at a Mulligan by offering a several sentence title card "continuation" of what all happened after the screen goes blank), it's a complete con. You may rack your brain trying to decipher this cranium cracker, but be assured that there is only one thing motivating the formless film and finale of Nemesis Game: complete cowardice and incompetence on the part of the filmmakers.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track Featuring Director/Writer Jesse Warn and Producer Matthew Metcalfe
* Making of Featurette