“Nerve” and the Problem of a ‘Hot Button’ Tech Movie

The trailer for NERVE, a film directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, based on the 2012 novel written by Jessica Sharzer, initially caught my attention because it swung between three different genre extremes; at first, it felt like an awkward stab at a techno-thriller, then it was a bland quirky teen romance centered on the titular app, and then it felt like “Saw for millennials.” So I was at least intrigued. When I went to see it, I started to understand why it’s reception was primarily ‘mixed’ to ‘mediocre’. The brisk pace and colorful visuals of NERVE do well to balance-out its instantly-dated premise and tensionless action, but do little to really elevate it.

High school senior Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts), while at a crossroads in her life in New York city, is sucked into the world of NERVE. NERVE is an online “reality video game” where players are dared by watchers to perform various stunts while recording themselves on their phones for money. NERVE is apparently some kind of “deep web” program because it automatically knows everything about a player – including their bank information – from a fingerprint scan. Anyone even remotely familiar with how technology, and the Internet, works can start to feel the premise of NERVE begin to fall apart.

While NERVE attempts to explain how the program works, and how it can somehow hold a person “hostage” and deter law enforcement, it fails to do so in a way that fully creates the suspension of disbelief needed for an audience member to become fully immersed and invested in the story. And I can see the metaphors and messages that NERVE is trying to convey, like how Internet anonymity can drive people to be less than human and how Internet “fame” can drive others to endanger themselves willingly, but the film’s inability to make the program feel real lets down even that hamfisted messaging.

NERVE can throw all the references it wants to the deep web, botnets and open source codes; but just using those words in a semi-applicable fashion isn’t enough to gloss over such an absurd premise.

A movie that founds its premise on a certain kind of technology is tasked with the tricky balancing act of making the technology understandable and plausible, but also not giving so much information about the technology that audience members begin to ask questions of how it works. This usually means the movie has to be explicitly science fiction, or has to have other, more powerful elements for the audience to focus on. Movies like Minority Report and The Matrix got away with their outlandish technology because they’re set in the “future” and involve things like psychics and evil computers. People can buy into those premises with little trouble. People can also buy into E.T. making a stellar communication device out of garbage because E.T. was a charming alien, and the movie wasn’t about the technology. But NERVE is explicitly about the program, how it works and how it can affect people.

NERVE can throw all the references it wants to the deep web, botnets and open source codes; but just using those words in a semi-applicable fashion isn’t enough to gloss over such an absurd premise. What’s worse, this movie is supposed to be set in the real world of 2016, so it doesn’t even have a genre hand wave on its side. First of all, NERVE is apparently a serverless peer-to-peer network with no actual operator that “creates a server on every user’s phone” so it can’t be tracked down and stopped. Despite my degree, I’m not that much of an expert on computers or networks, but I’m pretty sure that’s impossible. If it was, it would surely brick any phone with how much storage and battery it must take up.

Secondly, a movie like NERVE, a movie that basis its premise on a hypothetically “dangerous” real-world technology, instantly becomes dated and silly once it has any actual real world counterpart. In this case, the idea that the police can’t be/aren’t somehow involved with NERVE due to it not “being a crime“, is outlandish in a world where Pokemon Go exists. The police will get involved when too many people are gathered in one place trying to catch a Vaporeon at night, and yet somehow they won’t get involved when dozens of teens with cell phones are recording a speeding motorcycle in the middle of New York city? Never mind the fact that actual money and bank accounts are involved with this game. A game that apparently costs almost $20 an hour to use, if you’re just watching and daring the players. A game that also automatically deposits winnings into an account under the name “Anonymous”. At the very least, a bank might get suspicious and, maybe, freeze the account for verification.

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I could go on and on about how the NERVE program couldn’t possibly work as it was portrayed in the movie, but that would make this article overly long. The point is that the premise, and central idea, do not work because they cannot successfully create the necessary suspension of disbelief. This is somewhat unfortunate because there were other bits of the movies that I found somewhat enjoyable, if only because they were silly enough to work.

The characters, at times, are charming. They teeter right on the edge between “broad teen archetypes” and “annoying teen stereotypes.” At times, I could understand their plights, like Vee’s hesitation to tell her mom that she wants to go to an out-of-state college. Other times, they were caricatures, like when everyone apparently signed-off on forcing two people to shoot each other just for the hell of it. These characters are amiable, if unmemorable, until they start becoming the players in a broad morality play.

The movie is colorful, in a good way. The lights are bright and everything is bathed in a sea of neon and LEDs, turning the night time New York city into an ethereal urban playground. NERVE also plays up its Internet inspirations by superimposing screen names and app-inspired visuals in order to better illustrate the interactions between the people and their computers or phones. They’re a little garish – especially when we “see” from “inside” the phone – but they aren’t patronizing and are actually a nice visual indicator of the plot’s progression. There’s also some nice kinetic camera work that keeps everything moving and prevents it from becoming stale, until it gets to the few “action” sequences. These scenes, which are supposed to be filled with tension and action, feel slow and uneventful. A blindfolded motorcycle ride through the city didn’t ever feel dangerous, and it never actually felt like they got above maybe 30 miles per hour.

I suppose the most unfortunate thing about NERVE is that it came out in a bad time for its premise, though I have no idea what would’ve been a good time for it to release. While trying to capitalize on the modern trend of apps and social media, it immediately falls behind the times. I would’ve liked to have seen the visuals and premise moved further away from the technical workings of the game, and more into the ethically-gray and socially-questionable world of people diving head-first into an anonymous Internet game. In a world where Pokemon Go is being played by every other person on the planet, its hard to make a cellphone game seem this scary.


Review Summary for NERVE

Unfortunately, “NERVE’s” fast pace, mostly enjoyable characters and colorful visual aesthetic cannot make up for the movie’s brittle techno premise and tension-less action.

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