It feels weird to call a movie a “modern day Hunger Games” because that series is still relatively recent, but that’s definitely what this is. Nerve is what the Hunger Games would be like if we had them in the current day instead of waiting for the future for it to happen. Instead of fighting to maintain the social order, people are putting their lives at risk to compete for social media notoriety.
Vee (Emma Roberts) is a stereotypical high school senior wallflower. She’s got a crush on the captain of the football team, who she’s afraid to talk to. She has a male friend, Tommy (Miles Heizer), a tech-savy kid that’s clearly into her but stuck in the friendzone. Her best friend is the school’s party-girl head cheerleader, Sydney (Emily Meade). She also happens to be a high ranking player in a game called “Nerve”. The game is an app that splits it’s users into the groups of “players” and “watchers”. “Watchers” pay a subscription fee to watch and vote on what people are dared to do. The “Players” are sent the dares and they can accept the challenge and receive money or bail out and lose the game. At the end of a certain amount of time, the game ends and the two people with the highest score move on to the “final stage” where they face off to determine a winner. After Sydney embarrasses Vee in front of her crush, Vee decides that she’ll show her friend and herself how adventurous she can be by joining the game as a player.
Her first dare is to kiss a random person for 5 seconds. That person turns out to be another player named, Ian (Dave Franco). The players seem to like them together and they basically go on an extended date guided by the dares of the watchers. As the game goes on, Tommy continues to try to warn Vee about the dangers of the game and the access that it gives people to her life. Vee doesn’t heed the warning and continues going on a series of increasingly dangerous dares with Ian, gathering more viewers, popularity and money along the way. The movie also shows that Vee and Ian have rivals in the game. One of whom, is Sydney who’s not enjoying watching her friend come out of her shadow. The other is a guy named Ty, (MGK as Colson Baker), who looks like he’s constantly auditioning to be a War Boy in Mad Max: Fury Road and seems to be constantly working as an agent behind the scenes for Vee and Ian’s dares on behalf of the watchers. The game quickly turns into the watchers manipulating a conflict between Vee and Sydney, which results in Sydney trying a dare that almost gets her killed. When Vee realizes that Ian helped to create the situation they’re in, she gets angry/scared and violates the games 3rd rule: “Snitches get Stiches”. She tries to report the game to the police, but the officer doesn’t seem to care and she’s kidnapped by Ty on the order of the watchers.
At this point things start to really spiral out of control (both for the characters and the movie itself). Vee wakes up in a crate, with the game telling her that she’s now being forced to play the game. She leaves the crate and is found by Ian, who reveals to Vee that both he and Ty are in a 3rd category of the game called “prisoners”. They were part of an incident that resulted in a player dying. When they tried to report it, the game invaded their lives and basically held the wellbeing of their family and friends as hostages. Once you become a prisoner, the only way out is to win the game. Vee quickly comes up with a plan to shut down the game, but it’s going to require Vee, Sydney and Tommy to work together in order to make the watchers culpable for their actions instead of just anonymously pulling the strings from their phones.
What did I think?
This movie surprised me with just how good it was at generating suspense throughout the first 2/3 of the movie. The entire thing is really an exercise in teenagers (or people in their early 20’s) making a series of bad decisions. The entire premise of this game and how it can automatically access your bank account and compile a dossier on you by spidering the internet once given permission, just screams “BAD IDEA”. Even knowing that (and maybe, partially because of that), I got really drawn in to the stakes of the dares that the players were going on in the beginning of the movie. They start out kind of cute but, by the time Vee and Ian are trying to hit 60mph on a motorcycle in NYC while blindfolded, I realized that I was actively uncomfortable watching them in the very way you should be when watching someone do something life-endangering and stupid. Another big suspense moment was watching Sydney’s final dare in the movie. Because, at that point, the movie still feels unpredictable. They had built up the narrative in such a way that it would’ve made sense for Sydney to live or die in that situation.
Unfortunately, that same unpredictability completely faded in the final act of the movie. Once the “prisoner” players are explained and it becomes a Hunger Games style, “only one person can survive” scenario, it was fairly obvious that they were going to find a way to break the game. Really, the final act felt like it let the movie down in a lot of other ways as well. The most glaringly disappointing moment was Vee preaching to the watchers about hiding behind anonymous usernames. In a movie that was full of much more subtle commentary that chips away at the way our society currently handles voyeurism, social media fame, and the ways that it affects our interactions with each other; this speech felt like a clumsily wielded sledge hammer. Vee’s solution to the situation also seemed a little bit easy. Previously, we had only seemed glimpses of Tommy’s technical prowess and the group of Hackers led by the “Hacker Kween” (played by OITNB’s Samira Wiley). That entire group went from being mentioned in a single moment, to being a huge part of the last act.
Similarly, the watchers and the light that they’re presented in drastically changes in the last act. For most of the movie, they’re presented as a kind of tumblr-esque fandom that’s just looking for the next star to follow or casually watching for the LOL’s. The character Liv (played by OITNB’s Kimiko Glenn), Syndey and Vee’s friend, is our primary gateway into the reaction of the watchers while they’re being portrayed that way. There are also the kind of innocuous voyeurs who are constantly taking video of the players. However, the watchers almost instantaneously become a group of masked bullies who are maliciously guiding a blood sport. It’s a kind of confused message about whether or not the watchers are truly depraved/evil or that the evil is just a result of people getting swept in the flow of a method of entertainment that dehumanizes real people. In hindsight, I think it might’ve been better for the game to have been controlled by some concrete malevolent force instead of an ambiguous mass. It would’ve made some of the commentary less effective but, as I’ve said, I think the movie’s already guilty of that.
This movie just didn’t stick the landing, but that doesn’t mean that the ending ruins the rest of the movie. The earlier parts of the movie are still a suspenseful and sweet story. The movie has a great look and a soundtrack that does an outstanding job of using music to communicate with the audience during some of the wide exterior shots and transitions. Franco and Roberts are a great together and individually. There was actually a point where I thought to myself, “thank goodness there’s a second Franco that’s good at just doing more straightforward work”. I do think/hope that this movie will continue to push Dave Franco’s career forward. It’s also a good feature for Emma Roberts, despite her being the one who delivered that preachy speech at the end. I don’t place the blame for that on her. It was the content not the delivery that failed there. There’s a lot of good in this movie. I believe that there’s enough of the good that it shouldn’t be overshadowed by some of the movie’s shortcomings.
- Dave Franco and Emma Roberts
- does a good job of presenting tense/suspenseful/fun situations with the dares
- a thoughtful commentary on the age of social media stardom
- Movie shifts drastically at the end and feels sloppy
- The climactic speech is too preachy