Mash up Snapchat, Pokémon Go, MTV’s Fear and David Fincher’s The Game, and you get Nerve: an ultra-cool, media-savvy, hyper-neon teenage drama/dystopian techno thriller. Originally concocted by Young Adult author Jeanne Ryan, Nerve was brought to the screen by none other than Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the guys who gave us Catfish and two of the Paranormal Activity films.
Despite its numerous shortcomings, Nerve’s premise is fairly promising. High school senior Venus (Emma Roberts), or “Vee” for short, is considered a wallflower by her friends, but when her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) claims she’s a wuss, Vee compulsively joins Nerve, an online game in which “Players” complete dares given to them by “Watchers.”
Her uncharacteristic choice to “play” the game leads her into a wild, dopamine rush of an adventure, accompanied by one of Nerve’s most popular Players, Ian (Dave Franco). Her dares grow in magnitude, from kissing a stranger, to helping a blindfolded Ian drive a motorcycle, to walking across a high up ladder straddling two windows in adjacent buildings.
As Players complete dares, they receive cash bonuses in addition to likes, favourites and lots and lots of attention. The film is perfectly calibrated to present-day Internet culture, from the glitchy cell-phone video quality of certain scenes, to the troll-like insults Vee gets via comments. And thus begins Nerve’s comparison to real life and our trivial, first-world problems.
Nerve represents our attention-hungry Internet social stratosphere, and like most contemporary YA drama, the game is clearly a representation of high school and its never-ending popularity contest.
Sydney becomes extremely envious of Vee’s overnight success in Nerve, resulting in a petty cat fight between the friends which grows increasingly darker, until they realize they’re trapped in a game that’s taken over their lives. Right. This is when the allegory to real-life Internet phenomenon or anything remotely resembling social commentary dries up, and Nerve goes from being nerve-wracking to simply getting on your nerves.
As Vee enters the darker side of the game, where she and other contestants, Ian and a punk kid named Ty (rapper Machine Gun Kelly), must reckon with their Internet celebrity by playing a game of gladiator, her friends try to save them. But how? Enter the dark web world of hacking, a convenient little Deus Ex Machina that can solve just about anything with the press of a few fast buttons.
Vee’s best friend Tommy (Miles Heizer), whose character is little more than a jealous third wheel, suddenly turns into Mr. Robot and obtains the help of a whitehat hacking collective to stop the game.
The final act turns Nerve from crime thriller/teenage drama into a banal morality play. There is literally a scene in which Vee screams at the spectators “Do you want us to kill each other?” But the irony is that by getting hackers to stop the game, it must explain in technical detail just how it all works, thus exposing a slew of logistical problems that make the game sound completely nonsensical. The lack of inner logic makes it even less relevant or applicable to our superficial, mediated obsession with the Internet.
Thanks to films like Jason Reitman’s Men, Women, and Children, the Internet-as-evil critique subgenre is already pretty dire, and Nerve loses itself when it tries too hard to fit in, instead of embracing its inner dumb jock. The film forgets the most important takeaway from high school: It’s always better to just be yourself.