Movies have an internet problem. That’s nothing new. For as long as the word “cyberspace” has been a part of the cultural lexicon, cinema has struggled with just how to portray the existential dangers of the internet in a way that wasn’t, well, patently fucking ridiculous. From early tries like The Net or Hackers, all the way up to last year’s Black Hat, directors have yet to crack the code for how to portray the internet in a way that wasn’t eye-rollingly and mind-numbingly stupid.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to give Nerve a certain degree of credit. The film builds on the mistakes of the past, learning from them and honing the ideas into something that feels, if even slightly, grounded in reality (technical inaccuracies notwithstanding) or, at the very least, feels possible. I walked into the movie determined to hate it; while it never quite washed away my pre-conceived notions of its imminent badness, it’s easy to be won over by the simple charms the film has to offer. It may not be great, but it’s good if you let it be.
The film follows the viral phenomenon of a game called Nerve. Sprung the dark web, Nerve allows players to take on dares from watchers for a monetary reward. Normally introverted and safe Vee (Emma Roberts) gets drawn into the game after her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) chides her for not living life to the fullest. Once embroiled in the game, she meets Ian (Dave Franco) and the two become partners in an escalating series of dares that put their lives in danger and, eventually, lead to a conspiracy of identity theft, black mail, and murder.
Even describing it, I find myself rolling my eyes at the contrived premise of it all, and it’s absolutely hard to make the movie sound like anything less than a vapid exercise of style over substance. That’s a not an unfair assessment, to be sure. Style is at the forefront, but that doesn’t mean the film is ever lacking in substance. While it begins as just another in a long series of movies about pretty young white people getting in over their head, surprisingly the film has some interesting, if somewhat base, commentary on the nature of online morality.
Beneath its flashy veneer is a film that meditates on the anonymous nature of the web, and how that perceived anonymity has the ability to bring out the worst of our instincts as we emotionally distance ourselves from the person at the other end of the connection. Nerve “players” are at the mercy of the “watchers” as they willingly put their lives and safety in danger for the sake of more and more followers, even as the dares escalate from the simple (“kiss a stranger for five seconds”) to the deadly (“reach 60 miles per hour on your motorcycle blindfolded”).
As the dares escalate, so too does the tension, and there are plenty of nerve wracking moments throughout the film’s 90 minutes. The tension plays well in the film’s favor as it detracts from the superficial romance which unfolds between scenes of death defying action. Roberts and Franco have decent enough chemistry that only gets better as the film goes on.
Nerve is not without its share of shallow moments, however, which most likely stems from the fact that it’s being marketed towards the teen crowd. In this age of instant gratification and virality serving as a stand in for actual depth, I suppose I can’t blame the film for lacking in nuance. Like the internet itself, Nerve plays more for likes and shares than it does meaning and subtlety, which in a way makes the film itself a sort of meta-commentary on modern culture.
Glossy exteriors and easy to digest content are the bread and butter of internet culture, as websites, apps, and games thrive on simplicity and ease of use/understanding. That somewhat excuses the heavy handed messaging of Nerve as it critiques the idea that anonymity is an excuse for being a total dick. “We’re better than we are online,” seems to be the resounding theme of Nerve, and while it’s presented in a simple package that’s easy to look at, it’s an important reminder that “that’s the internet” is becoming an increasingly less viable reason for being a jackass. Morality doesn’t log off the moment we log on.
As the internet and connectivity bleeds more and more into the real world, these are necessary conversations to have and themes to explore. Your arguments for being a good person in real life hold less water when you’re actively participating in activities that put other people in danger and have an emotional effect on their well-being while online. It’s easy enough to ignore trolls online, but when those same trolls are encouraged to engage in reality that becomes more difficult.
The film also explores the fleeting nature of online celebrity as its characters vie harder and harder for more followers to ensure they are allowed to continue on in the game. In a way, Vee and Ian become local superstars, as more and more people flock to watch their exploits both online and in reality. Players brag about their Nerve watchers the same way we brag about our Twitter followers, as if achieving internet fame is at all similar actual celebrity. Retweets and likes may feel good, yes, but mostly they’re meaningless. This is important to keep in mind in real life whenever you find yourself actually giving a shit about things like Kimye vs. T-Swift. In a world where antics increase visibility, and visibility is a metric for celebrity, just how far will we go to achieve at least the perception of fame?
While Nerve often toes the line between utter ridiculousness and viable critique, it’s still a mostly enjoyable, if forgettable, film that knows what it wants to be. It won’t ever be considered a classic, perhaps not even a cult classic, but it is one of the better portrayals of the dangers of connectivity yet committed to film. Even with its commitment to style over substance, Nerve manages to be an interesting and entertaining mid-summer movie that, if nothing else, gets the job done and serves its purpose well enough.
Nerve is now playing in theaters everywhere.