“Are you a watcher or a player?”
So asks the stuttering synthesised voice of NERVE, the antagonist of the neon-lit youth-oriented Nerve, a film that sparkles with such cinematic cleverness that its more eyebrow-raising moments are less problematic than the serious issues it raises about human beings in the digital age.
NERVE is an online-reality game like “truth or dare – minus the truth” – where Players compete for “money and glory” by completing dares set for them by Watchers – their anonymous, paying fans.
Nerve stars Dave Franco and Emma Roberts
As a cybervillain, NERVE is different from such previous artificial intelligence nasties as HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Terminator’s Skynet. It is not presented as a sentient computer program, but as the aggregate of the online mob, a wicked inversion of the utopian dreams of “the wisdom of crowds” that underlie much internet idealism.
The protagonist of Nerve is the soon to be graduating from high school Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts). Vee is a shy, but self-possessed girl with a good eye and a talent for photography. She has an offer to study at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, but due to her fear of confrontation has not told her protective mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis), who is still grieving the loss of her son.
Vee’s friend Sydney (Emily Meade), an exhibitionist who uses her antics to cover her deep insecurity, is enthralled by NERVE, seeing in it a way to gain fame and fortune.
After Sydney unintentionally humiliates her, Vee signs up for NERVE, and calls on her hacker friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) to take her to a cafe for her first dare – which is to kiss a stranger for five seconds. Of course, the stranger she chooses is the charming Ian (Dave Franco), who’s also playing NERVE.
The Watchers like them together so much that they have them team up for more and more outrageous dares. But as things become more dangerous, Vee discovers the game’s true cost – that the Watchers are like wanton gods demanding complete obedience, and that there is no way out.
With its heightened emotions, stock characters and contrived circumstances, Nerve is a melodrama, but a melodrama with a brain and a witty cinematic style. Artfully sampling alt-pop and electro music, as well as visual cues taken from the world of social media and computer game play, Nerve is propelled along by its soundtrack and its quickfire editing.
The New York of Nerve is New York at night, recalling the dark and disturbing, temptation-filled New York of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, where the norms of civilisation are replaced by something more animalistic. Moreover, this New York is saturated in a dehumanising neon light, as if lit by the glow of a thousand computer screens, as if the online and real worlds are bleeding into each other.
Marshall McLuhan, the pioneering media theorist and cultural critic, coined the term “Global Village” to describe the effect that an international electronic interconnectedness would have on humanity. The term may conjure images of peace and harmony, but that is not what McLuhan meant. For McLuhan, technology amplifies already existing human traits, and so a “Global Village” is also the magnification of all the strife and parochialism of life in a small, closed community.
Nerve dramatises this tension. The age-old desire for social status and wealth that is replayed online is returned to the real world but in such a way that it is immediately re-presented virtually to an all-seeing and ever-present mob. By playing NERVE, a Player gives the game access to their online everything – social media, bank accounts, the lot. In effect, they have invited Big Brother into their lives, all for a game.
We may think of Big Brother as being the exclusive preserve of government, but the reality is that the business model of much of the internet involves tracking everything the user does online and using that for targeted advertising. This is the tradeoff that allows internet companies to give away their services for free. As the saying goes: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
Although the film seeks to be “realistic” in its treatment of technology, it still tends towards a “magical” take on it, one where computers can do anything the plot requires. This is understandable, as the film is not about technology so much, but about how we interact with technology and its impact on humanity.
The spectacle of Nerve is ultimately an argument for an authentic life, unmediated by electronic artifice – the sort of life that requires real nerve.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).