Nerve is a savvy internet morality tale tacked on to a giddy teen blockbuster, a parable about the corrosive power of online anonymity and the dangerous side-effects of a generation addicted to the dopamine rush of “likes”.
It’s the first original feature from Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman since 2010’s massaged-reality documentary Catfish (they also directed two middling installments of the Paranormal Activity franchise), and while the films are tonally miles apart, they share a fascination with the darker side of the web.
The titular Nerve is the latest craze, a smartphone game where “watchers” pay to follow “players”, who receive cash for filming increasingly dangerous dares. Kiss a stranger on the mouth to earn $100. Steal a designer dress for $1,000. Drive a motorbike blindfolded through Manhattan for $15,000. The catch is, if you “fail or bail”, you lose everything. It’s both neat and heavy-handed, an essentially ridiculous premise that nevertheless proves a worthy vessel for the directors’ rather blunt allegory. As the lead characters’ popularity increases, the faceless mob driving them forward become ever-more sadistic; a bald but effective analogue for all those internet h8rz.
It also allows for some genuinely riveting set-piece “dares”, one of which, involving a ladder between two high-rise buildings, was so good they included it twice. These sequences are so well put together you can just about forgive the final act, which discards any vestige of realism in favour of a preachy monologue set in a literal gladiatorial arena.
The characters are all deliberately plucked from the realm of cliché: young ingenue Vee (Emma Roberts, niece of Julia) is tired of living in the shadow of her cheerleader friend Syd, and decides to give Nerve a whirl. She finds herself teaming up with handsome stranger Ian (Dave Franco, brother of James), who probably isn’t what he seems. Peripheral characters include the captain of the high-school football team, the geeky best friend and the computer nerd who knows all about the dark-net.
There are visual similarities with last year’s excellent internet horror-story Unfriended, which took place entirely on the screen of a laptop: countless FaceTime and Spotify windows flash up and augmented reality “flags” track players as they race across the city like a gang of underground Pokemon Go enthusiasts.
Virtually every shot is drenched in greasy neon, like a tween Spring Breakers, or a Nicholas Winding Refn take on The Hunger Games. There’s also a slightly jarring retro-techno aesthetic involving lots of 90s web-design, recalling films like Hackers and The Net, which seem intended as a wink to older viewers.
These references will be lost on most of Nerve’s audience: adapted from a YA book, it’s unquestionably aimed at teenagers. It’s a shame, then, that it was given a 15 rating – although sensible given the film’s glamorous depiction of dangerous activities – which will prevent half its target market from seeing it on the big screen. No worries for them, they’ll be streaming it on their smartphones by next week.
First published in City A.M.