- Movie Rating -

Nerve (2016)

| July 26, 2016

Nerve is a safe, tepid treatment of a subject that is so current you’d swear the movie was made only yesterday.  It’s about our all-consuming obsession with apps and online games that arrives just at the moment when half of the country is mired in ‘Pokémon Go‘ and the other half wishes they’d just put the damned phones down and watch where they’re going.  I’m not saying that ‘Pokémon Go’ is anywhere near as destructive as the game portrayed in Nerve but, it’s early yet.

The game being played in Nerve is not only plausible, but in many respects inevitable.  It is called Nerve and it is an app-driven competition that is described via a sinister voice as “’Truth or Dare’ without the ‘Truth’” At the moment of sign up the player is asked if they’d rather be a Player or a Watcher.  If you select Player then you suddenly become part of reality show-type game that is something like an extreme version of Fear Factor.  If you choose Watcher then you get to participate in issuing the tasks.

The early tasks are simple: the app might tell you to “Kiss a stranger for five seconds” or “Try on a $4,000 dress.”   As you complete your tasks the challenges get harder and more sadistic: “Drive 60mph on your motorcycle blindfolded” and “Hang one-handed from a construction crane for five seconds” (although the game does not initially tell you that the crane is 500 feet in the air).  The rewards for these tasks are an increasingly tempting amount of cash that is forwarded immediately into your bank account upon successful completion, and the thrill of being an internet celebrity.  If you reject any challenge, you forfeit the game and lose all that you’ve earned.

The person at the center of our story is Vee – short for Venus (played by Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) – a pretty high school kid who is about to graduate and needs money for college.  She’s not a risk taker, something that her friends are not shy about reminding her.  Her BFF is Sidney (Emily Meade) who is far more daring (particularly in the way she dresses) and is already a Nerve celebrity.

Naturally, the need for money forces Vee to take a chance.  She signs up for the game and almost immediately gets hooked up with a sleepy-eyed near-do-well named Ian (David Franco, brother of James) who is also a fellow player.  The two get involved in the thrill of the challenges, but of course, the challenges get more and more dangerous.  Later they realize that they’re both being manipulated, that the game has sinister overtones that they didn’t quite expect.

This is where the movie begins to fall apart.  What is presented in the early scenes is a bold and nearly perfect commentary on app culture – would you lie under a moving train for $50,000?  Given that, I had hoped for a great cautionary tale about the unending obsession and dangerous manifestations wrought by the worst elements of social media.  Yet, I overlooked the fact that American films don’t deal in caution anymore, they deal instead in thriller elements.  Producers these days wants to challenge and audience, they’d rather tread safer waters so as not to offend the audience’s expectations.  They’d rather spoon feed you comfort food and then tuck you in.

That’s too bad because the movie is made with some skill.  It was directed by Henry Joost, who made one of my favorite documentaries, Catfish, about a young man who develops and online romance but slowly begins to realize that his e-lover isn’t all that she appears to be.  There’s some of that inspiration here, but the movie just won’t go down any dark roads.  It’s too safe and too pat to be anything really thought provoking.  I do like the production design of Nerve which is decked out in bright neon and high beam bulbs, suggesting the digital world that Ian and Vee are playing in.  But ultimately, it’s all for nothing when the filmmakers throw in the towel and the movie goes on automatic pilot.

The second half of this movie has Vee and Ian on the run from the sinister machinations of the game leading to a stupid finale that is meant, I suppose, to satisfy the Hunger Games crowd.  As the movie neared its conclusion, I realized that the filmmakers had lost their nerve.  I sunk back in my theater seat and tried to imagine this same scenario in an Asian film.  There the consequences of playing the game would be spelled out.  The ramifications of all that Vee and Ian had been through would not be candy coated because there would be a price to pay.  Lives would be destroyed and the players would be left to clean up their own mess.  Alas, we Americans are such dimwitted philistines that we have to have everything wrapped up in a happy little bow and ends on a note that is neither challenging nor thought provoking.  Nerve lays a lot of potential greatness on the table and then betrays its own title.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2016) View IMDB Filed in: Thriller