Saturday, August 13, 2016

"Nerve" Review: A Mostly Believable Premise Gives Way To A Contrived Finale


The same way movies of the late 70's all the way up to the late 80's would villainize computers, so too is how social media is being used as the gateway to all evil in the 2010's. While films like Scream 4 integrated social media into how the killer would stalk their victims (even more so with the TV series) we got our first glimpse at this new era with last years Unfriended which used things like Skype to kill people. That film in particular failed to live up to its (at the time) unique premise but as is often the case the films that would follow in its footsteps learned from its many (many) mistakes and find new ways to use social media as the conduit of our own demise. Case in point is the new teen thriller Nerve which may surprise some as it is one of the best examples of this idea that social media kills we have gotten to date which is unfortunately let down by a completely unnecessary twist ending. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 36 min
Studio: Keep Your Head
Release Date: July 27, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: The idea of a mobile game that encourages reckless actions
Likes: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, the surprisingly catchy soundtrack, the cinematography
Neutral: The idea that an open source mobile game can be hacked and taken away forever
Hates: Everything after the reveal of the "prisoner of the game" plot
Will there ever be a real game like NERVE?: If you play Pokemon Go then you already know the answer to that.

Vee is just a normal girl looking for a way to express herself.

Venus (Emma Roberts) aka Vee for short is a shy high school girl who generally likes to keep to herself and with graduation on the horizon finds herself faced with some tough decisions. Helping her to overcome her social awkwardness are her close friends, the wild and crazy Sydney (Emily Meade) and the techy nerd guy Tommy (Miles Heizer) who is secretly in love with her. Sydney is constantly trying to break Vee out of her shell but never seems to succeed until she introduces her to the new mobile game NERVE where Vee finally decides to throw caution to the wind. Along with the help of Ian (Dave Franco), another NERVE player she encounters along the way Vee must learn to put her fears aside if she is to survive the next 24 hours.

Based on a 2012 book of the same name, Nerve is about a game called surprisingly enough, NERVE which is a game like Truth and Dare minus the truth. The rules are simple, you are either a Watcher or a Player. The Watchers are the ones who come up with the dares and are ultimately the ones who decide which Players win or lose based on who they decide to follow. The Players are on the hook for a 24 hour period and must complete all dares posed in a timely manner. The more risky a dare is the more money is put into their accounts and the more Watchers they gain. If they do not complete a dare by either opting out or by simply failing it in any way, shape or form they are eliminated from the game and all the money they have earned is taken away. The Player with the most Watchers at the end of the night will then have to compete in a to-be-determined fashion with whoever came in second for the grand prize.

Are you a Player or a Watcher? This decision could change your life for better or worse.

There is also one other rule that is important to note which is the old schoolyard term, snitches get stitches. This rule isn't given much explanation beyond warning anyone, Players or Watchers that if they were to report the game to any authority figure they will be punished in some way or another (oddly enough it is never explained what happens to someone who snitches that isn't part of the game). Aside from the fact that you shouldn't play ANY game that implies you will get punished and doesn't even bother to layout what that punishment is, this rule is also the catalyst for the ultimate failing of the film where it takes this mostly believable scenario of kids playing a childish app on their phones and turns it into a social media awareness advert that isn't nearly as intriguing as the game itself and its effects on the those who decide to play it.

Nerve is at its best when we are watching Vee and Ian, along with hundreds of other possible Players actually play the game. Making on the fly decisions of what is worth the money and what isn't versus their own fears and anxieties that is all brought on by a silly mobile app is an extremely clever way of of demonstrating just how much technology has taken over not only our lives but our free will as well. The timing of this films release and the current real world phenomenon Pokemon Go is sort of unprecedented as anyone who plays the Niantic mobile game will atest, it is difficult to determine the lines between right and wrong sometimes when faced with the prospect of winning or losing the game and Nerve is an all too real cinematic counterpart to this dilemma we are faced with currently which the film outlines all too well sometimes.

The dares start out innocently enough but become increasingly dangerous.

It also helps that we are given characters to follow who feel real for the most part. Vee is played with the usual charm that Emma Roberts brings to her roles (at least the ones where she isn't being forced to play the entitled bitch) and Dave Franco as Ian proves that he is the more charismatic of the two Francos (the other being of course James Franco) as he easily wins Vee's trust and our own. More importantly the two function well together where as they begin to face greater obstacles we begin to root for their continued success the same way the Watchers do which in an ironic bit of trickery on the filmmakers part (whether intentional or not) we too become Watchers as we feel invested in whether or not they will prevail (my theater actually applauded after the completion of a rather dangerous dare involving a blindfold and a motorcycle).

As already mentioned things go off the rails rather quickly though with the reveal of the secret third participant of the NERVE game. If you consider this reveal as a spoiler then so be it but it is impossible to properly convey the problems with this third act twist without actually mentioning it, so if you care then skip ahead down to the final thoughts. Anyway, so we learn after Vee attempts to out the game to a local police officer that by snitching she has become a prisoner of the game where her bank account is drained and she must compete in the game until she wins or else the game will ruin her life. This reveal along with everything it implies is truly what sinks this ship the most as the plot holes and character motivations start to converge into a pulpy mess. Let's break this down a bit so you can see where the problems lie.

Vee and Ian get into all sorts of hijinks while playing Nerve together.

First of all we are told this game is popular, very popular. Vee's best friend Sydney not only plays it all the time but is apparently very good at it. For a game this popular and widespread it is a bit unusual that absolutely nobody tells Vee about the consequences with snitching. Ian tries in a half-assed attempt to stop her but considering the repercussions he clearly should have knocked her out or something. Why aren't these explained in the rules section? We get a clear understanding of how Watchers and Players work, but why just say "snitches get stitches" for those who tattle? Wouldn't they have a better chance of preventing anyone from even trying to snitch if they were up front about the fact that they will outright ruin their entire lives?

But then again, why would anyone even play a game where that is a possibility? Sure you can argue that maybe most of the Players don't realize this when signing up but what is to stop anyone who becomes a prisoner from just posting their experience on the internet? In this day and age it is near impossible to keep something like that a secret (where are the app reviews?). But then there is the game itself, we learn that NERVE is a community game and does not have anyone who actually runs it. So it is up to the users to maintain it and make sure it keeps working. But does this mean it is the Watchers who make these snitches Prisoners? And if so are they actively hacking their lives on an individual basis in order to punish them? Who is doing this to them and why?

This is unfortunately where the film truly goes off the rails.

Lastly there is the grand finale which takes place at a not-so-secret location where the dare for the first and second place winners is for one to kill the other. Who would ever want to play this game again after seeing this go down? There is this whole subplot about taking all the anonymous Watchers and making their profiles public and thus forcing them to stop playing (since we all know everyone is more of an asshole only when nobody knows who they are, the internet is great isn't it?) but in reality once these people see someone kill another person WHO TECHNICALLY WAS THE WINNER, no one would ever participate in this game again! The levels of absurdity that permeates over the last 20 minutes of this film is staggering to say the least and sadly destroys all the good will that came before it.

Nerve is not a bad film, it is a good film with a very unfortunate twist ending. Which is sad because it could have become a film that represented the voice of a generation in how technology rules the social world of our youth. There are enough elements to help overlook the films shortcomings such as a talented cast, an attractive visual style and one of the better soundtracks to come along in quite some time but it becomes increasingly difficult to accept any of this as something even remotely plausible once they introduce the prisoner aspect. It just wasn't needed and does absolutely nothing, aside from throwing some timely commentary in our faces about the potential terrors of technology to help the story which was just fine when it was about an insecure teenage girl learning to let loose and live a little.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

There is a lot of potential with the premise about a mobile app that encourages kids to do stupid things (like they really needed that extra push) and learn to live with the consequences of their actions. Even the characters were surprisingly well written, but it was all squandered when the filmmakers (or the book I suppose) decided they needed to make this a tale of morality and how making other people kill one another is a bad thing (something most mentally stable people already know). It's heart was in the right place but it was in the wrong movie.

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