Director/Screenplay – Jesse Warn, Producers – Suzanne Berger & Matthew Metcalfe, Photography – Aaron Morton, Music – Mat Fletcher, Music Supervisor – Nicola Fletcher, Special Effects Supervisor – Jeff M. Shochko, Prosthetic Effects – Paul Jones Effects Studio, Production Design – Peter Cosco. Production Company – Upstart Pictures/Studio Eight Productions/Method Filmed Entertainment/The New Zealand Film Commission/49th Parallel Films/Paper Pictures/Scissors Stones Productions/Emily Gray Productions
Carly Pope (Sara Novak), Adrian Paul (Vern Stevens), Ian McShane (Detective Jeff Novak), Jay Baruchel (Jeremy Curran), Rena Owen (Emily Gray), Brendan Fehr (Dennis Reveni), Vanessa Guy (Marie)
Toronto university student Sara Novak is drawn into a mysterious game where people leave spray-painted riddles on walls and the solving of each riddle leads to the next part of the game. She believes that the game holds answers to the reasons behind her mother’s death in a car accident. A fellow student, Jeremy Curran, hints that he knows her secrets and leaves her a mysterious card of the Hindu avatar Nemesis. She finds that the Nemesis card is associated with Emily Gray, who has just been released from jail for drowning a boy. Emily was playing the Nemesis Game too and insisted that the murder was all part of something called The Design. However, as Sara continues to play, Curran turns up murdered. Teaming up with comic-book store proprietor Vern Stevens, Sara tries to puzzle out who or what is behind the game, only for this to place their lives in danger.
Nemesis Game was a British-Canadian-New Zealand co-production. It is the feature-length debut of young New Zealand director Jesse Warn, who previously made two shorts and various music videos. The basic idea of a game that draws people in to eventually question the meaning of life is promising – it suggests something of the excellent other low-budget Canadian sf film Cube (1997) – if one that in its focus around riddles seems a little undergraduate in its intellectual gamesmanship. (Riddles and puzzles clearly seem something of great fascination to writer-director Warn – one of his previous shorts was 9 Across (1999) about a crossword puzzle that holds the key to a prisoner escaping from jail). Of course, the whole reality labyrinth theme has become of great topical fascination since the successes of films like The Matrix (1999) and The Sixth Sense (1999).
Alas, Nemesis Game turns out to be a film of infuriating frustration. To use the labyrinth analogy, it feels like a maze that leads only to dead-ends no matter which way one turns. It is a film where Warn raises many intriguing questions – Who is behind the game? Who is doing the killings? What causes people to change and become murderers? What is The Design? What is Dennis doing back from the dead? What is the significance of the mirror? How does Emily know about Sara and her father? – and leaves every single one of them hanging. The non-ending the story eventually arrives at is one of the most irritating that one has seen in a film in some time. Granted this places Nemesis Game in the company of fine works such as Blow Up (1966), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which steadfastly refused to offer any answers to their mysteries. These others work superbly by leaving the answers to questions unravelled and hanging in audiences mind; Nemesis Game does the same but only produces a resounding thud of annoyance. Indeed, this is one of the few films where you can hear an audible buzz of irritation among audiences as they left the theatre at feeling cheated by the ending.
Compared to these other films, Jesse Warn only does a journeymanlike job in constructing the build-up of the mystery. While the film broods with a certain degree of atmosphere, there is little of an intellectual grip to Carly Pope’s fascination with the mystery and journey into the figurative labyrinth. Jesse Warn simply fails to do an adequate job in making his audience hunger for the answers before leaving the final clues beyond their grasp.
Warn certainly has some good actors on hand – British actor Ian McShane from tv’s Lovejoy (1986-94) and just before his award-winning role on tvs Deadwood (2004-6), Kiwi actress Rena Owen of Once Were Warriors (1994) fame, even one supposes Adrian Paul from tv’s Highlander (1992-7), not to mention Jay Baruchel as a fellow student several years before he became a breakout name – but wastes them in ill-defined roles. Indeed, Nemesis Game amounts to no more than routine video/dvd-release, one that is killed through its pretensions toward feeling that it has something meaningful to say.
Jesse Warn has not made a film subsequent to Nemesis Game and has been working only in series television.