Every time there’s an advance in gaming, it seems that Hollywood springs into action to make a terrible “scary movie” about it. When home video games were all the rage, there was “Brainscan” (1994). When games went online, there was “Stay Alive” (2006). Now that social media has entered the fray , we have “Nerve,” which rivals its predecessors in awfulness. This silly, ultimately completely square tale, based on a YA novel by Jeanne Ryan, apparently wants to be an urban version of “The Hunger Games” but fails miserably. At a moment when “Pokemon Go” has become a wacky phenomenon, it might attract gamers to the multiplex, but they’ll be sorry they opted to play.
Nerve, we quickly learn in one of those dreary computer-screen montages at the start, is an online version if truth or dare, except that truth isn’t an alternative. If you enter Nerve, you first elect to become either a player or a watcher—the latter one who elects simply to observe the tribulations that players are undergoing (and broadcasting first-person on their smartphones, or photographed by a friend), for an admission fee, of course. Players, on the other hand, must complete dares assigned by the watchers in order to win cash prizes. The dares can start small—kiss a stranger, do an impromptu song-and-dance in public—but quickly escalate in embarrassment or danger, and can build on one another and bring players together. As players are eliminated, their number is decreased to a point where the two most popular with watchers will ultimately face off in a final, and as it turns out, a potentially fatal dare.
Our heroine is Vee, short for Venus, Delmonico (Emma Roberts), a shy, reserved Staten Island high school senior afraid to tell her single mom Nancy (Jennifer Lewis) that she’d like to study out on the West Coast because Nancy is still grief-stricken over the death of Vee’s older brother a couple of years earlier and terrified of losing her daughter too. Prodded by her obnoxious best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) to loosen up and ask heartthrob football star J.P. (Brian Marc) out—a ploy that brings only humiliation—Vee decides to show her mettle by signing up for Nerve, which exhibitionist Sydney is already playing and hoping to win, despite the doubts expressed by Tommy (Miles Heizer), a nice-guy classmate who’s obviously stuck on her.
Vee’s first dare brings her in contact with Ian (Dave Franco), another player with whom she’s quickly teamed up by the watchers. Could that be more than a coincidence? In any event, the dares they’re offered, while increasingly remunerative, grow progressively more demanding. Vee’s success also causes a rift with Sydney, and leads her to break the game rules in a way that puts her—and her mother—in real danger. The only recourse is to agree to a final face-off with Ian that could leave one or both of them dead.
By this point the movie has evolved from a silly, ineptly made teen thriller into a crushingly heavy-handed cautionary tale about the morality of online voyeurism in which Vee excoriates , and supposedly shames, the watchers for their vicarious thrill-seeking and bloodlust.You know the drill: pander to the audience’s desire to be voyeurs for ninety minutes before shifting gears to lecture them about the evils of voyeurism. Hitchcock made that point brilliantly in “Rear Window,” but here the dopily superficial treatment of the issue is exacerbated by the idiotic plot contortions of the final act, in which Tommy teams up with some sort of underground computer diva called Hacker Queen (Samira Wiley) to unplug the game while Vee and Ian must contend not only with their violence-loving watchers but the other top player, Ty (Colton Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly), a reckless daredevil who appears ready to fulfill their every gruesome wish. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who helmed the third and fourth installments of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise as well as “Catfish,” the supposed documentary about the dangers of social networking), along with editors Madeleine Gavin and Jeff McEvoy, simply aren’t able to keep much of what’s happening clear, and the result is lots of incoherence punctuated by Vee’s strident sermonizing, a catastrophic combination. They hadn’t even managed to convey much excitement earlier on, in a cruelly extended motorcycle chase through a Manhattan street.
The acting is mediocre as well. Roberts and Franco are personable, but overdo things badly in a vain attempt to engender some energy, and Meade is all too convincing as a self-absorbed minx. Lewis is totally wasted in a throwaway part, but Heizer brings a welcome touch of likableness to Tommy. The technical side—Chris Trujillo’s production design, Michael Simmonds’ production design—is adequate within the obviously low-budget limitations. But the background score, mostly consisting of a chain of intensely irritating, overly loud pop songs, is brutal.
Those who choose to engage in Nerve (the game, that is), can win, bail or fail in any challenge posed to them. Nobody who watches this dismal movie will win, but happily they have the opportunity to bail. It’s the movie itself that fails to elicit anything but snorts of derision.