Saturday, 17 September 2016

Nerve (2016) - Movie Review

Using game shows, and more recently augmented reality games, as a means of societal commentary is old hat by this point. Whether it’s the dark satire of Death Race 2000, the hyper-machismo of The Running Man or even the surreal tinge of comedy in Bad Wolf, an episode of Doctor Who, this isn’t anything new. Not that being tried-and-true is something to be instantly ashamed of; just that it means extra effort needs to be made in order for the work to stand out. Well, with the ever-increasing proclivity of the Internet and its many, many outlets, specifically social media, YouTube and even the fascination surrounding Pokémon Go!, maybe it’s time for such a commentary to be made anew. We can only hope that this film is capable of delivering on that. Spoiler alert: No, it isn’t; not by a long shot.

The plot: Vee (Emma Roberts) is a soon-to-be high school graduate who, according to her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) doesn’t take nearly enough risks. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve, where Players perform dares for Watchers for money and notoriety. Vee gets into the game, encountering fellow player Ian (Dave Franco), and at first seems to be enjoying her new-found freedom. However, it seems that the Watchers are a little more intensive than she thought and she may soon find herself at the mercy of the game.

The cast is actually really good, managing to wade through this somewhat questionable material to create some decent performances. Roberts is honestly a bit of a blank slate, mainly serving as whatever character the moment needs her to be, but she works well at weaving through those character moments without any seams showing. Trust me, anything to help this feel grounded is more than welcome. Franco, quite honestly, might give the best performance of his career as this very fun and engaging thrill seeker that never lets up throughout the film’s run time. Meade spends most of the film like she’s auditioning for Mean Girls 3, and while her character muddies up the appeal of the film’s main plot device, she at least seems like she threw herself head-first into the performance and the effort shows.

Miles Heizer probably makes for the best character overall as Tommy, as his dry sense of humour along with how he immediately sees the BS for what it is makes him not only likeable but consistently likeable. Given the last film I saw Juliette Lewis in, I’m willing to call this an upgrade if it weren’t for the fact that she seems to be playing the exact same character… at first, before she kind of just folds away like so many others here. You know a film’s bad when I haven’t even gotten out of the cast run down and I’m already complaining. Oh, and Machine Gun Kelly is inexplicably here and the dude definitely works with the extreme daredevil character he’s given. Not sure how much “acting” went into it, though.

I’m just going to say it plain and simple: This film, or more specifically this script and probably the book it was adapted from, understands shockingly little about the Internet. Like, it is almost kind of astounding just how plain wrong this film is when it comes to the details. And no, I’m not referring to the minor points concerning the Dark Web; I’m talking about the game Nerve itself. Somehow, I get the feeling that these filmmakers genuinely don’t understand how the term ‘viral’ works, and it increasingly shows with how much the Watchers don’t want their fun to be ruined by the police. You’d think that people running around and doing increasingly dumb things in public would get some media attention or at the very least get a few heads to turn. But no, this incredibly popular thing is somehow still a secret. That’d be like if Pokémon Go! was shown as an incredibly minute and niche fandom, despite it being easily one of the explosively popular games of the last few years.

So, credibility is already wearing thin and that isn’t helped by how needlessly glossy this film is, both in style and in substance. With the style, it has this very artificial sheen that only serves to highlight how unreal all of this is, not helped by the Abrams-style lens flares that keep cropping up. With the substance, for as much as this touts itself as a thriller, this is almost adorably tame. It keeps trying to show this dark and seedy online underbelly that is the Nerve community, but it just feels too restrained by its PG-13 rating to do anything substantial with it. It basically comes across like a more kid-friendly version of David Fincher’s The Game, only without all the intrigue and suspense and… well, anything that made that film work.

As for this film’s attempt at commentary, I was initially curious about it despite my misgivings because it showed a YA film that ventured away from the standard high school allegory that I think we’re all getting quite sick of. Then I actually watched it, and realised that this film’s notions about the Internet and more specifically the people who use it are about as wrong-headed as you can get. I couldn’t help seeing the idea of watching people do silly and occasionally hazardous things on web feeds and immediately linking it to Youtube, which is rather apt considering the Watchers are depicted as the kind of people that write the more notorious Youtube comments. The approach to this theme of dangerous entertainment has been tackled before quite recently with films like Gamer and The Condemned, and while they both definitely went the full Monty in making their points whereas this one just meanders, they are actually making the same point.

Nerve the game is completely faceless: No creators are brought up, no-one running the servers, no-one is held responsible. To make up for that, it is the audience and spectators that are held accountable… for all of it. You know, for a couple of directors who wanted to show that Nerve could be “a really empowering game” but also “the most awful thing you can possibly imagine”, they sure spend a lot of time focusing on the negatives as if that’s all there is. Literally from the moment Vee gets involved in the game by Sydney, it is constantly being shown as this thing that is absolutely not meant to be trusted. Scream empowerment all you want, this is near-50 Shades Of Grey levels of missing the point of why such an activity is rewarding.

This blog, and indeed my entire critical viewpoint, was crafted out of spending a lot of time in Youtube communities. I have seen the Watchers of this world in the comments, but here’s the thing: They have no power. Yeah, communities often shape the artist and vice versa, but there’s a difference between “Hey, I’m going to send this guy a bottle of olives that are over 100 years old” and “Eat these century-old olives or I will fucking destroy your life”. Troll comments get ignored for the same reason that, in any rational universe, the Watchers of Nerve would be ignored: They’re all sound and fury. Sure, there are the extremists who do equally dumb shit in return like SWATing and leaking personal information online, but notice how I used the term "extremists"; as in, not the fucking majority. And yes, this film depicts the majority as being part of the problem who need a good talking to about what constitutes having ‘nerve’. Well, indicting the audience certainly takes a lot of nerve.

I brought up Gamer and The Condemned before, and this film has the exact same problem that they do: It wants to lecture us about how truly evil we are because of what we do in our spare time. The Internet is not this big black chasm from which you can never escape once you enter it… God, I feel like I transported back to the 90’s just by typing that, because that’s how bloody antiquated this approach to the Internet is. And what makes this all even worse is that the linchpin moment, the point where the ‘Anonymous’ become known and their actions are put right in front of their faces? It’s a fucking setup where nothing actually happened, further tying real-life violence together with fictional violence in this film’s worldview. Yeah, I’m sure people who paid to watch your film would love to be talked down to in this manner.

All in all, not since God’s Not Dead (either of them) have I seen such a hideously one-sided portrayal that purportedly wanted to teach people something ‘important’. Amidst the decent performances, bland soundtrack and the artifice created by the visuals, this film wanted to show the Internet’s effect for good and for bad, but instead resulted in something that in a few years’ time could easily be repackaged as YouTube Madness. It’s confused, it’s weak and I’d almost go so far as to call somewhat offensive, if it weren’t for the fact that it is far too stupid to be taken seriously. After leaving the cinema, I tweeted that this was essentially GamerGhazi The Motion Picture, but even with all the things I disagree with those people about (much as I disagree with pro-GGers, mind you), this just shows an ugly stereotype of that circle and how they supposedly think. Therefore, I don’t see it as anything worth getting on a platform about; it’s a dumb film that isn’t even enjoyably dumb, but a pain to sit through.

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