Nerve (SPOILERS: BIG. SPOILERS.)
Cert: 15 / 96 mins / Dir. Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman / Trailer
It must have been a horrifically boring and humid Friday afternoon at Lionsgate when they agreed to distribute this movie shortly before banging off down the pub. We've all been there, and I'm sure the Monday morning catchup meeting consisted of assurances that it would probably all pan out alright in the end. After all, Nerve might hinge on a thoroughly unworkable premise but it's based on a novel. And when has that ever gone wrong?
The story revolves around the shy, introverted Vee*1 as she steps out of her comfort-zone to play a cult online game, Nerve, where players vie to complete an escalating series of crowd-sourced dares to win prize money accumulated from the massive audience who are paying to watch it all pan out. When Vee quickly becomes paired up with fellow player Ian*2 by the game, it turns out that this is no chance meeting, and there's more at play than cheap kicks…
The 'dare' format allows for some nicely constructed set-pieces (riding a motorcycle up to 60mph in traffic through New York, blindfolded, for example), and it's clear that some of the ideas which worked well on the page translate to the screen with even more urgency. The subtext is the problem, though. Lying behind the story-mechanics is an interweaving commentary on social-media, online gambling and cyber-bullying. And it's not that any of this is misjudged in concept, just in execution.
I see no reason to hold back; Nerve is, ultimately, pretty crap. It's not completely awful, but I spent an inordinate amount of time massaging my temples throughout this film. The core-premise is that the game is A Secret™; some shadowy-underworld which normal civilians don't even know exists. Except that narrative necessity dictates that there are hundreds of thousands of 'watchers', ie paying subscribers, which couldn't possibly go un-noticed by some authority on some level. Particularly since in the story, the game has been running for at least a year*3. That said, the screenplay also waves the words "dark web" around like some Get Out Of Jail Free card, hoping wildly that the audience will just accept the things which aren't properly explained (cf, disrupting databases with the programming language of databases). Particularly prevalent is the assumption that in 2016, All Of The Youth have a constant high-speed mobile data connections and apparently infinite battery life. As far as the film's own target audience is concerned, this is definitely fiction (and that's without getting into the technicalities of prize-money being deposited in a bank account, the details of which were apparently gleaned from social media, given that Vee wasn't seen to enter them upon application*4).
Nerve mixes the mob-mentality or The Purge with the techno-paranoia of Unfriended, set against the nihilistic, neon-lit nightscapes of Drive. If only the film had the visual or narrative originality of any of those. The mix is muddied further as the story telegraphs every single reveal at least one act in advance, and then uses its third act to bring out the twin-guns of deus ex machina with a) Vee petulantly lecturing hundreds of assembled anarchists on the morality of online-anonymity and b) her best friend basically turning round and saying "Yeah, I suppose me and my elite-hacker buddies in our secret New York bunker could just re-write the game's code. I mean, it's not like the collective of programmers who made this game could possibly have thought of that in advance, or that anyone else has attempted to do so previously. I'm amazed the idea didn't occur to us before, frankly, what with us being so philosophically responsible an'all."
And by the time we get to the climax and Vee being shot with blanks (complete with fake-blood), I just expected her to give Ian a Hot Fuzz, ketchup-fuelled "ta-daa!". It was at that point I burst out laughing, much to the amusement of the patron next to me.
• On the plus-side, the principal cast (Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade and Miles Heizer) do all this with poker-faces which are awards-worthy in themselves. But those are the only awards likely to be won, here. Nerve isn't even bad enough to qualify for the Razzies.
• On the minus-side, the film has the sheer audacity to visually reference both The Lost Boys and The Empire Strikes Back in the construction-crane scenes, without earning the right to even mention either. Shameful.
Not so much a cutting-edge digital morality play, more a big-screen adaptation of a Daily Mail article where technology is inherently evil in its peer-controlled, unregulated form.
Nerve is every bit as grubby and exploitative as the people it claims to satirise, and treats social-networking in the same way Lawnmower Man presented virtual-reality. Which is to say laughably, at least. I suppose we should be thankful they didn't re-title it 'N3RVE'…
That line in Bastille Day when he says "...the hashtags will tip them over!".
Oh, why not?
If this really is your bag, then either go big or go home, yeah..
…make people stop and think about the line between their online and meat-space actions and personas?
Well, the directorial-duo also brought us Paranormal Activity 3 and 4, so quite possibly…
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Level 2: This film features Ms Juliette Lewis (now apparently relegated into "clueless mother of lead character" roles), who starred in 1988's My Stepmother is an Alien alongside Seth 'Todo 360' Green.
*1 Oh, you know the type. The shy, introverted girl who's attractive, intelligent, creative and hangs out with all the cool, popular kids. Yes that's right, like no-one, ever.
*2 No, seriously. Yes, I laughed out loud as well.
*3 The characters also refer to "last year's game", implying that Nerve is some sort of annual crescendo. But in the story we watch, Vee joins the game at around 4pm on the last day and still manages to make it into the final round later that night. As a central plot-point, this is magnificently unfeasible.
*4 And also that the game - apparently - deposits money in the player's account as dares are completed, but if that player 'fails or bails' on the tasks, then has the authority to remove the money, too. As if players couldn't have an accomplice systematically moving the payments to another account in order to prevent this. Oh no, I forgot: the game's code is open-source, so there's little/nothing preventing malicious hackers from just pocketing all the 'watcher' fees in the first place, leaving nothing for the prize-money. Silly me.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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