There have been several recent films that warn or excite us about the dark side of the web. Finding the right genre label for some is a challenge. For example, Nerve (2016) includes standard rom-com themes like girlfriend rivalry, coming of age bravado, truth or dare gaming, plus sci-fi themes about the dominance of techno-wizardry and the virtual realities of the digital age. It also has strands of deadly thriller, but the label that fits best is satire drama about the herd mentality upon which social media thrives.
Tensions erupt between high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) and her best friend Syd (Emily Meade) because of boyfriend rivalry. Syd’s popularity is rising with her success in an online reality game called Nerve. It has a closed membership of players and watchers in a game of dares with increasing cash rewards as the game becomes more dangerous. Vee signs up to obey the three cardinal rules: dares must be filmed on a player’s phone so it can be watched live; money earned is forfeited if a player bails or fails; and the existence of the game must not be reported to anyone outside the game community.
It turns out the Vee is good at the game and the money keeps rolling in but it gets seriously risky. She partners another nerve member and in one implausible but exciting scene a blindfolded rider takes a motorbike up to 60 miles per hour through traffic guided by Vee’s voice on the back. The game continues until the top two players are, like gladiators of old, pitted against each other in a deadly playoff for the approval of the masked watchers and a big cash prize.
As a satire about youth dependency on cyber-communities of anonymous likers, this film is far from subtle, nor is the portrayal of blood-thirsty trolls looking for human prey particularly original. Roberts and Meade are engaging as combatants but shallow in characterisation, something you would expect in a rom-com sci-fi anyway. The pace is lively and audiences will be kept alert just to see how life-threatening the game can be before some semblance of adult responsibility kicks in. But the prospects of moral reasoning are not bright. What the film does do well is in maintain a thin and fragile boundary between the actual world where real humans live and the strange world of digital consciousness that is shaping the cyber-morality of the future. At this level, it is a thought provoking film.
Directors: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Stars: Emma Roberts, Emily Meade, Dave Franco