Nerve (dir. Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman )

Posted: August 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Nerve” is a largely fun film in which two teens engage in a high stakes, live-streamed competition of increasingly dangerous dares. It’s an enjoyable film for the majority of its run, despite being greatly hampered by only having a PG-13 ratings instead of the R this film’s subject matter cries out for, but by the end the film reveals itself to be a preachy anti-cyberbullying PSA, much like last year’s “Unfriended” was. Also, in an age where TV shows like “Mr. Robot” show a fairly realistic depiction of hacking and computer technology, I’m not sure why “Nerve” thinks it can get away with a depiction that feels closer to the 90s “Hackers” than real life.

Our protagonist is Vee (Emma Roberts), a mostly good girl who is dealing with wanting to go to an expensive art school across the country, but is worried about leaving her single mother (Juliette Lewis) behind. Her friends include Sydney (Emily Meade), an extrovert who we’re told sleeps around, but mostly just wears outfits where you can see her pierced nipples through her shirt. Sydney is currently playing an online game called Nerve. Basically, a player gets a dare, which is voted on (somehow) by the people watching the game, who pay $20.00 a day to livestream any of the players’ feeds. The dares increase in difficulty and danger as the reward money for each task escalates. What makes zero sense is that upon completion of a dare, the reward money is deposited into the player’s bank account, yet we’re told that if the player fails a dare or quits, the money is rescinded, so essentially only the grand prize winner at the end actually wins any money. If that is the case, why is any money deposited at all? It is not as easy to rescind a deposit as it is to make one, unless the film implies that all the money is just hacking that can be easily disabled.  But if that’s the case, who is doing the hacking?

See, the film runs into an issue when trying to describe how the game logistically functions. Supposedly, the watchers act as a hive mind, coming up with the dares and then voting on which dare to actually assign. The comparison the film is trying to make is something like 4chan or Reddit, where the users do create a hivemind mentality in the sites’ content. The issue, though, is that though sites still have admins who call the shots and deal with logistical issues. Nerve seems to not have a staff operating IT, bank deposits, settling ties or watcher disputes, or just general service issues. Also, who actually collects the money the watchers pay? Who profits off the operation of this game? The film never tells us. It just says that each player’s phone/computer is a server in which the game is hosted on, and that the code for the game is open source. Okay?

So anyway, through various plot happenings, Vee decides to become a player. She, of course, has a nerdy guy friend witch an unrequited crush on her, because this is a movie about teens. This is Tommy (Miles Heizer), but his unrequited love serves no purpose in the film, except to have Tommy tell Vee that she shouldn’t be doing what she is doing, and to have his jealousy and worry lead him to other information needed for the plot later. Honestly, this character could have functioned just as well if he were merely a concerned friend and not harboring unrequited feelings.

For her first dare, Vee has to kiss a stranger. She finds a guy reading her favorite book in a diner, and kisses him. The game knows Vee’s favorite book, because apparently once the game scans your fingerprint, it can hack all of your internet profiles and personal information. Gee, you wonder why the NSA or foreign governments don’t have that kind of power. The guy is Ian (Dave Franco), who the film tells us is cool because he’s handsome and rides a motorcycle. Anyway, for a little while the game seems to want to keep these two together, though why the watchers want this is not really clear. This leads to increasingly dangerous dares like walking out of a store with almost no clothes on (a fun sequence) and driving 50 mph on a bike while blindfolded.

As the film goes on the dares get more dangerous, and friends end up at odds with each other. The problem is the film’s PG-13 rating keeps this film from the level of realism it is so desperately trying to grasp for. If this Nerve game existed in real life, dares would not stop at “Jackass” and “Fear Factor”-type stunts. They would involve murder, torture, rape, and other heinous crimes, because people on the internet don’t hold back. By having the watchers limit themselves in the film, the film is undercutting its basic message, which is that people are cruel to each other on the internet because they don’t have to see the people they hurt actually hurt in real life, and because they can hide behind the layer of anonymity the internet provides. When the film arrives at the finale, which involves watchers urging one player to shoot another, we get close to that, but not close enough. If the watchers are willing to kidnap someone and commit cybercrimes, why are these immoral bullies okay with their most dangerous dare being shooting someone in places where they could easily live. Also, when one character is shot, and presumed dead, it’s not the watchers empathy that kicks in, but rather a dubious hack that doxxes (what’s the plural of “dox” anyway?) the watchers, so their fear of being revealed ends the game, not any sense of morality.

So yeah, the film exists as a watered down and tame argument against cyberbullies on Twitter, 4chan, and other sites that hide behind fake avatars or eggs and demean others. It cops out by not truly making the film’s watchers quite cruel enough, and by having the watchers end the game through self-preservation and not some moral reason. At least “Unfriended” was only interested in revenge and assumed psychopaths would only change their behavior out of self-interest (to not be murdered) rather than ethics.

I blame the film’s directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, for wanting this film to be PG-13 so “teens could see it” (teens see R rated films by sneaking in or Netflix…you did this for monetary reasons). They also directed the fake documentary “Catfish”, also an alarmist movie about the internet, and two “Paranormal Activity” movies. They clearly wanted to make a message movie, but held themselves back and cut their own ankles on this one.

Still, the film is fun as a light, airy diversion. The actors are having fun and have chemistry, and the level of danger in this film and the how-will-they-get-out-of-this-one action is just slightly higher than a, say, “Adventures in Babysitting” film. Seeing kids have a night on the town with increasing danger is a somewhat 80s genre of film we don’t see much of, and this was a fun film, if in the end rather stupid, preachy, and watered down. B-

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