Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman made their names with the 2010 false identity drama Catfish, a documentary that explored the space between internet fantasy and harsh reality. They return to those themes with Nerve, a film surrounding an online game of the same name that is kind of like streaming Pokémon GO over Twitch to see who can get the most views. But instead of hunting Charizard and Pikachu, the ‘Players’ are chasing adrenaline highs while vying for the attentions of anonymous ‘Watchers’, who crave the power of controlling your their move.
Emma Roberts plays Vee, a high school student whose fearless brother died two years ago. Her life is still very much dictated by his death. Her mother, played by Juliette Lewis, is desperate for her to remain in the state, when Vee wants to become independent in an expensive liberal arts college across the country. Her brother is also the reason her friends believe she shies away from risks unlike her outgoing, spotlight-hogging friend Sydney.
Trying to prove all her doubters wrong, Vee signs up to be a Player in Nerve, just like Sydney (because the best way to step out of someone’s shadow is to copy everything they do), and on her travels, meets Dave Franco’s Ian, the mysterious veteran player. After the Watchers see them together, they think they would make a cute couple. So they force them to journey together through the sinister world of online voyeurism as their requests gradually become grimmer and darker.
Only not too grim and not too dark. This is a kid’s film after all. And that is the problem with Nerve. It is a Saturday afternoon Disney Channel movie that is desperate for you to believe it’s The Hunger Games. It wants you to believe that it’s Young Adult, but is actually a straight forward children’s flick, but with none of the bite or humour that makes all the best children’s flicks truly great.
Nerve only bears its teeth to file them down. All of the film’s attempts to shock are anticlimactic. A blindfolded motorcycle trip through the New York City streets never convinces you the riders are in any danger; the emergency break they end it on must be the weakest in cinematic history. Later on, one of the characters faces a dare that has been foreshadowed to play on their fears. It is supposed to be one of the film’s pivotal scenes, but literally nothing happens of consequence. Even worse is that their character has no impact on the plot after their scene is resolved. They would literally be f more use to the narrative if they were dead. But the filmmakers never have the guts to try and provoke real emotion out of the audience. They are bizarrely afraid of doing anything remotely upsetting. Even after the film’s climax the directors yell to the audience “It’s ok folks! Nothing happened. Everything is as it was two minutes ago.”
It’s also one of the scenes that highlights one of Nerves’ most chilling ideas. The ability for the Watchers to see the Player’s personal information – the stuff they’ve voluntarily chosen to share on social media – and tailor their trials to their specific fears. It is a horrifying concept. Typically, it remains one of the most underdeveloped. It’s used as a method to prod an unwilling and lethargic plot along. Nothing more. Yet more potential for drama wasted.
They do scarcely better with the plot’s central antagonist – the Watchers at the heart of this twisted web of manipulation. Presented like most Twitter mobs, there is no structure to Nerve’s organisation, and no hierarchy. This makes it Anonymous (note the capital ‘A’) and therefore even more threatening. Except, it isn’t. There is a clear element of organisation involved in the creation of the game and how they deal with those who displease them. The two elements are at odds with each other. Exploring how online cartels operate and control their victims could have brought those attributes together. Unfortunately, that is far too lofty an ambition for a film so afraid of heights.
At least it’s a better representation of hacker culture than the good guys. One of Vee’s friends is a cyber stalker who spies on Vee and is constantly trying to make her decisions for her. He does this selling himself as some kind of parental figure, but everyone knows he just wants to sleep with her. He is a creepy little shit. He saves the day as he and his band of wizards use magic to take down Nerve’s servers and expose their perverted users. The plot tries to tell you it’s hacking, but trust me, it’s magic. No computer programming on earth looks like that.
Nerve is a series of wasted opportunities, one after another. This film could have been a vital and interesting look at the destructive nature of online attention seeking. But the film shies away from exploring its concepts and raising its stakes with an effort that feels almost aggressive. As if the film were scared of aspiring to being anything greater than a streaming experience you half watch while chatting to your friends on Facebook or WhatsApp or both. The moral of the story is ‘take more risks’. Fine talk from one of the most timid and apprehensive filmmaking exercises I’ve ever seen.
Dir: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Scr: Jessica Sharzer
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Machine Gun Kelly, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Samira Wiley
Prod: Allison Shearmur, Anthony Katagas
DOP: Michael Simmonds
Music: Rob Simonsen
Runtime: 96 min
Nerve is out in cinemas now.