Nerve August 9, 2016
It’s just past eight-thirty and the setting sun has given the town a heavenly glow. The afternoon’s heat has been replaced by comfortable warmth. Birds are chirping; a pleasant breeze sifts through the air and caresses the uncovered flesh of pleasure-seeking passersby. An uncanny euphoria looms. Life can be hard, but nights like these remind us that living isn’t really all that bad.
To make the most of this picturesque, lazy summer night, I’ve decided to go for a quick jog, to soak up the sun and sweat out the day’s gluttony. With the speed of a stay-at-home dad trying to stay in shape as he pushes his kiddos around in an exercise-abiding stroller, I dart around my small-town’s central, tourist attraction of a lake, people watching as movement beckoning music blasts in my eardrums.
I’m blissfully detached until I notice a strange scene up ahead in a patch of green. A crowd, silent and sullen, swarms, unmoving. I inch closer. Soon do I notice that this flurry of hunched-over figures, strewn about in cliquey circles, are hypnotically gazing at their phones. I move along quickly — a few bystanders look up temporarily to clear out of my path — but the image burns in my memory. For the first time in my life, technology no longer seems to merely be a handy tool great for tracking down information and diversion. It also seems to be apocalyptic, controlling and entrancing to the point of being distinctly dangerous.
Days later did I discover that I was witnessing a deluge of individuals playing Pokémon GO, which, by now, has become a worldwide phenomenon that’s effectively integrated itself into everyday life. I’ve since been told that that ominous point of interest was a Pokéstop (or a gym — I can’t remember which).
Months have passed since that initial introduction, but the area, regardless of if it’s day or night, still hasn’t cleared of technological exploitation. Despite my understanding that most of the game-playing is in good fun, and that many are able to stop themselves when they get too overindulged, something about the app makes me uneasy. It’s as if I expect it to go Philip K. Dick on me and start heading in the direction of mind control.
Perhaps it’s obvious that I’m an unbeliever in the magic of Pokémon GO — no matter how many articles try to convince me that the game is a good thing, getting people to go outside and meet new people, I remain skeptical. I’m also markedly wary of an Internet culture that finds the population hiding being façades and anonymous observations, accidentally narcissistic and oftentimes lacking in compassion. Pikachu’s point of conception is a summary of Generation X’s kids’ hedonism (though earlier generations are following in their footsteps, too).
Creativity is mostly able to proliferate in a media stimulated society, but I’m more fatigued by the piggishness that runs rampant, the piggishness of selfies and oversharing and empty ambition. Nerve, a cautionary tale regarding the perils of overstimulation, goes to great, operatic lengths to prove a point. If you’re not careful, becoming a mindless robot enslaved by the quest for online fame could very well replace reality.
Such claims are hysterical and Nerve is about as deep as my navel. But as its release coincides with the peak of Pokémon GO’s fame and is catering to a generation unafraid to provide someone with fleeting fame on Instagram, it couldn’t be more appropriate and couldn’t be more valuable in its portrayals of technological dependency.
The title of the film derives from a wildly popular game excessively played by the movie’s characters. It’s a riff on Truth or Dare, except no truths are being told and the dares themselves are hopped up rather than exclusively harmless. Consumers are camped into two categories: Watchers and Players. Watchers, like passive Facebook users, are able to casually watch as their favorite Nerve superstars commit themselves to undergoing batty antics. Players must do whatever their screen commands them to. Dares must be filmed and must be completed in a timely manner for sizable monetary rewards. Tell the police about the game and the consequences are dire — snitches get stitches, Nerve declares in its trippy video advertisement.
In spite of its unshakable fishiness, though, the app has turned into a secret sensation among adrenaline addicted youths. The majority of the population are Watchers, making snippy criticisms on forums and pressuring skeptical Players to risk their lives without having the balls to cheat death themselves. It’s like a virus, and someone is bound to die.
To Vee (Emma Roberts), a comely introvert with a weak spot for Wu-Tang, Nerve is little else besides another regrettable fad. She has bigger things to worry about than participate in a silly game: high school graduation is drawing closer, and she’s contemplating whether to stay in Staten Island or see her dreams through and accept admission to Cal Arts.
But after an uncomfortable lunch session sees Vee’s best friend, the vulgar Sydney (Emily Meade), essentially publicly corner her for living her life in the shadows, Vee hastily decides to sign up for the game. Though she’s much too smart and self-assured to get suckered into bandwagon jumping, a malicious remark from a trusted friend is enough to get under anyone’s skin. Before long, Vee is a top Player. She has the appearance and disposition of a girl-next-door in over her head, and Watchers lap it up.
Shortly after joining the craze does she meet and team up with Ian (Dave Franco), a top Player and receiver of her introductory Kiss A Stranger For Five Seconds dare. Attraction is mutual. Only a few moments pass and suddenly they’ve started the adventure of a lifetime. Watchers watch sinfully as they hesitantly shoplift, cruise through traffic blindfolded, tattoo each other. Expectedly, however, demands steadily grow in their potential for irreversible damage. Lines between fantasy and reality are blurred.
But Nerve never ceases to be a fizzy, if transient, techno thriller as indebted to David Fincher’s darker but less effectual The Game as it is to the culture generated by its target audience. It’s a movie inarguably made for quick fingered millennials: the Spotify approved soundtrack is all bass drops, GarageBand quirks, and vocalists trying to be Feist, and the photography is Kung Fury meets neon adoring, ‘80s devoted Tumblr blog. It’s a pixie stick sweet fever dream that begins affectedly cool and ends provokingly cagey. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, also the creators of MTV’s Catfish, give weight to the film’s intuitively teen speak style, and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer crafts serrated commentary but skimps on vivid characterizations and memorable dialogue. It’s more CW than Showtime.
But Roberts and Franco are affable protagonists that impressively remain to be stone-faced even when Nerve gets carried away in its sententious messages, and the film, clocking at a refreshingly quick ninety-five minutes, is comparatively winsome. Like the eponymous pastime, it’s an urgent thrill. But it also has a brain in its pretty little head, and its intellect, not its swagger, is its most attractive asset. B