I really didn’t care for Catfish. I found the film to be terribly predictable, and I fail to understand how the central message of “People on the Internet aren’t always who they say they are” could be met with anything other than a shrug of indifference. As if any halfway sensible person who grew up with the Internet wouldn’t already know that. Though the film did give us “catfishing” as a convenient verb to describe what happens when someone online gets led along by a false identity, which is probably something we needed, so there’s that.
So now — after taking some time to direct a couple of Paranormal Activity sequels — Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are back. And by a stroke of incredible luck, their timing couldn’t have been better: They went and made a film about augmented reality at a time when Pokémon Go has been grabbing headlines and data plans all over the world. But strangely enough, Nerve didn’t really remind me of Pokémon Go or Catfish. More than anything else, the film strangely reminded me of The Purge: Election Year.
Both films try to use an action thriller conceit as a vehicle for deeply incisive and timely questions. In this case, Nerve is a commentary on the strange need — especially among kids and young adults — to record themselves doing suicidally dumb things to post online. Thus the amateur daredevils get their adrenaline rush and hopefully their fifteen minutes of fame while the rest of us get a quick thrill and maybe a few laughs. No matter how the stunt goes, no matter what property gets damaged, or even whoever fucking dies, the end result is the same and it all gets immediately forgotten anyway. How sick and twisted is that, when you really think about it?
Anonymity is another huge factor in the film. After all, it’s so much easier to deny responsibility for something when you’re only one nameless and faceless nonentity behind a computer screen, among countless other millions taking part in the same reckless and ethically gray activity. Thus we get into mob rule, accountability, peer pressure, and so on.
Of course, that isn’t even getting started on how much of our lives are in websites and databases. This is nothing new for Hollywood to explore, of course, but this film gets into how we don’t even need hackers to use our personal information against us. In this day and age, users are only too happy to volunteer information about themselves, handing it over to online services and total strangers with no real control or knowledge of what’s being done with that data. Or who else may have access to it.
These are all important issues and we could definitely use a film to address them. Unfortunately — getting back to the Purge comparison — these topics are explored by way of an utterly ludicrous premise.
The basic idea of Nerve — by which I mean the eponymous online game — is that users are divided into Players and Watchers. The Players volunteer all personal data about themselves, up to and including their bank account information. The Players then record themselves performing dares chosen by the Watchers. If the dare is successfully completed, money is wired to the Player’s account. If the Players stop playing, or if they fail a bet, they’re out of the game and all the money they’ve won is lost. Oh, and everyone is very expressly ordered not to tell anyone — especially the authorities — about this and to keep Nerve a closely guarded secret. I should also add that Nerve doesn’t have any one dedicated server, and the whole thing is run by the mob of Watchers instead of any one particular leader.
Whoo boy. So much bullshit. Where to start?
First of all, the film was very clearly trying to use Anonymous as a model for the Watchers. It doesn’t work. There’s absolutely no way the game could work as shown (especially so quickly as shown) unless there was a single person directing the action in some way.
The characters also like to throw around words like “open-source” and “deep web”. In all of these cases, the filmmakers plainly show that they have only a passing knowledge about what any of these things really are and how they actually work. The game operates on total bullshit, which sadly means that it can only be taken down by bullshit. This naturally takes a lot of wind out of the climax.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that our main characters have knowingly agreed to take part in all of this. They have willingly surrendered all of their personal data to some shady monolithic organization that has no oversight or accountability of any kind. They have signed on to this game knowing that they will be expected to record themselves doing things that are flagrantly stupid, incredibly dangerous, and most likely illegal. Yet the Players keep on accepting every single dare as they come.
No. Just no. There is absolutely zero way I can find any sympathy for these characters. Not a shred. Not ever. I don’t care if they die or whatever, it’s their own damn fault. I award you no fucks, and may God have mercy on your soul.
This alone would be a dealbreaker for me, but it doesn’t help (again, like with Purge) that the characters are all terribly developed. Emily Meade plays a bitchy best friend whose development arc is pathetically predictable. Juliette Lewis is shamefully underused, playing the thankless role of our protagonist’s mother. The only halfway sympathetic character (because he’s the only one sensible enough to stay away from the game) is Miles Heizer as Tommy, but the film treats him as a paper-thin plot device and a sad loser who keeps getting friend-zoned by our protagonist. And every single other supporting character, without exception, is a shrill teenage stereotype with no personality to speak of.
And what of our main characters? Well, Emma Roberts and Dave Franco are both fine young talents and they turn in pretty decent work with what they were given. It certainly helps that Franco has a tragic backstory to work with, and Roberts’ character is given a bit of pathos to work with even if it serves no purpose to the plot. That said, Roberts was still miscast. We’re supposed to believe that when the movie starts, Vee (short for Venus) is supposed to be this wallflower who always stays in her comfort zone and can’t get a date. Like Emma freaking Roberts couldn’t get any guy at her high school she wanted? Yeah, bullshit.
(Side note: I only just now realized that V is also the name of the main character of V for Vendetta, whose Guy Fawkes mask has been adopted as the universal symbol for anonymity in online activism. Coincidence? You make the call.)
Though I will give the film this much: It is undeniably stylish. The filmmakers do a remarkable job of taking us through the online mechanics of the game, and the whole film has a dazzling neon-lit color scheme that somehow looks incredible without getting too distracting. (Hey, Nicolas Winding-Refn, are you taking notes?) The soundtrack is also loaded with some great songs that further infuse the film with a kind of youthful and reckless energy that suits the mood very well.
Nerve is one of those rare few infuriating films that’s way too dumb to be asking all these smart questions. As much as I love the film for taking on such bold and timely subject matter, and as much as I love the film on a purely visual level, it’s hard to take the film seriously when it’s built on such a rock-stupid plot. I couldn’t care less about the suspense going on when the setups and payoffs are all made from bricks of horseshit. Moreover, I couldn’t care about the action when the characters are only in danger because of their own stupidity, and it certainly doesn’t help that maybe only one or two of them barely register as plausible human beings.
There’s a lot in this film to like, but not enough that I can give it a recommendation.