Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, Nerve is about high school senior, Vee (played by Emma Roberts), who feels like she doesn’t really take any risks or live her life. So, after being rejected by a guy she’s had a crush on, supposedly for being too reserved, she decides to join an online mobile game, which her more rebellious friend, Sidney (played by Emily Meade), already plays, called Nerve. As the movie says, It’s like truth or dare, without the truth. In the game, participants can either be players or watchers. If the participant is a watcher, he or she issues and votes for dares for specific players, and players complete the dare for money. If a player fails to complete a dare or bails on it, then he or she loses everything. A bit into the movie, though still in the beginning, Vee meets Ian, played by Dave Franco, and the watchers really like them as a couple and want them to do dares together, and the plot really takes off. Dares get more risky, relationships are tested, but the movie’s one-note characters, uneven pacing, abrupt tonal shifts can’t sustain its flight. By the end, disappointedly behold smoldering ashes, dribbling copious neon and poorly shot, uninventive, half-assed action sequences.
As we start off, the on-screen chemistry between Roberts and Franco really sells the budding romance between Vee and Ian. They’re the cute couple, which we’ve seen in so many teen movies: the shy girl meets the bad boy / rebel, who shows her adventure. And this setup is fun for the first half, as we start to see that, by way of Ian’s influence, Vee is beginning to take riskier and riskier dares, but then at the half-way point, the dares and the stakes plateau in intensity, even if the movie thinks the stakes are higher. The influence of Ian is no longer really as present and Vee seemingly is back, barely different than she was before. Fitting, seeing as Ian stays completely static, as a character. And the characters stay that way even after, as shown in the trailer (for some fucking reason), Vee’s mom’s money is gone and their identity is stolen. However, while individual characters are not well-developed – and I can’t say relationships are either – writer Jessica Sharzer seems to be at least somewhat good at creating conflict between characters, though they may be minimally character-driven, and at times, a tad forced.
The pacing and tonal shift in this movie, on the other hand, are not well done. The frequency of character actions swings wildly between extrema and, at the same time, tones change drastically from mildly whimsical, romantic, and light-hearted to dark and gritty, and then back and forth and in between. It’s done in order to maintain the heart of the relationship between the two leads, and also emphasize the weight of their situation. Additionally, the tonal changes don’t seem to be synchronized with shifts in pacing. Because if it were, I don’t think the changes in pacing would have bothered me as much. And both the abrupt tonal changes and unsynchronized changes in pacing impede upon the audience’s ability to really sustain both heart and any sense of weight because we’re constantly switching focus, and we’re constantly changing the flow of time, in ways that don’t really allow us to let emotions sink in. Granted, the things to focus on are limited, to the movie’s benefit: The relationship between Ian and Vee, between Vee and Sydney, and just the circumstances brought upon Vee, by the game. Nonetheless, the damage is done. I will say that the transition in tone when we find out that all of their money is gone, is done quite well. Else than that, this movie is just paced poorly and tonally inconsistent.
That said, regarding the pacing and tone, this movie had a few character moments that could have been made stronger, had they taken advantage of the transition of tones in one particular scene. There is one verbal altercation almost immediately after which Vee makes a serious realization, regarding her relation to the people involved in that altercation. And I think, since so much was riding on that relationship since the movie insisted on revisiting those relations, the script could have and maybe should have given the audience and Vee some time to let it sink in. I know that there’s a lot of chaos around the characters at the moment, but I don’t think it’s impossible. There’s a great scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), when Chihiro and No Face are just sitting in a train car, after having left the danger and chaos of the bathhouse, and nobody says a word and the audience is allowed to just let everything sink in, knowing that, after the train ride, the story is going to take the audience back into chaos. That train ride was worked into a really thrilling series of continuous action sequences to give the audience some time to just sit there, rest and let their mind wander and just think about everything that’s happened so far and process all of their emotions, before heading back into the action. For that scene, the movie shifted tone and pace but did it really smoothly and with the purpose of working with the audience’s emotions and thoughts. I think this is something the movie could have done. They had most of the elements needed to make a visually striking moment, they had a moment when the character actually doesn’t do anything and the director could have asked the cinematographer to do a slow, relaxed tracking shot of Vee walking or resting or something. She didn’t have anywhere to go immediately anyway. But, instead, we just cut to the next plot point.
Then we have the cinematography and action, which are both really boring. The movie looks fairly good, especially at night (which is most of the temporal setting of this movie), when the screen bleeds neon colors, and I happened to like that aesthetic. They’re not spectacular shots, though. But the movie can get away with that. What it can’t get away with is the really poor, boring cinematography of action sequences. I don’t know the budget of this movie, but there are several scenes in which the writer wrote sequences of action, but there may have only been enough in the budget to allow for awkward partial shots of the more intense “stunts.” You see people hanging on to things and the green-screen is laughable. Or, if it’s not green-screened, we only see the upper part of that person’s torso, and then we cut away to laughable green-screen again. It takes away any tension intended to be in these scenes, not least because the actors react to the stunts as if they only dropped a mildly enjoyable cookie on the floor, but mostly because the cinematography was so boring in these shots. What are you showing us? This is a visual medium. Unless this is Bourne Ultimatum (2007), you should show us the action on screen. Take lessons from George Miller about his direction of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), or any of Jackie Chan’s Police Story movies, or any of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man movies. They show the action on-screen, because, among other things, that’s what the audience paid to see. Bourne Ultimatum was an exception to this, but this movie is not trying to do what Bourne Ultimatum did. That movie could get away with using shaky cam to not showing us the action because that was part of the script’s method of creating a sense of anxiety. The action in this movie, on the other hand, engenders little to no suspense or sense of anxiety in the audience. Granted, some of it is the bland writing of the action, but the rest is just the really bland cinematography. You know, shot-reverse-shot, tracking level at medium distance, simple pan, simple pan, close in at whatever’s the best angle to hide cheapness of stunts. And the editing during these action sequences doesn’t help. Right when you think the movie is going to show you something interesting, it cuts to a few frames after the would-be interesting thing. Look, it’s okay to have a lower budget. No shame in that. But optimise your script to make the best of what you’re given. If you can’t afford quality stunts, that’s okay. Leave them out. Don’t write them in just to have them in there.
The ending killed any positive feeling I had towards this movie. In the end, Vee’s friends are struggling to figure out how to take away the anonymity of the watchers by hacking into Nerve, because the watchers basically trap people in the game, destroy their lives, control them, etc.; the idea being that if you take away the group’s anonymity, you thrust upon them the responsibility to ethics and their fellow human, which they had foregone, by being anonymous. Meanwhile, Vee is in a gladiator style arena, in which she and Ian have to try to shoot each other (of course Ian is on her side, so he tries to convince her to win, by shooting him). Vee, of course, doesn’t want to, and the audience/crowd, watching around the arena wants Machine Gun Kelly’s character, Ty, to shoot Vee. Ty appears to shoot her. The hacker friends remove the anonymity of all of the watchers and it turns out that Vee had asked Sydney to make a phone call to Ty and tell him to use fake blanks, to help her fake her death, convincing everybody to quit the game. And then it just cuts to Vee and Ian making out, and then the credits roll.
If the movie had ended the movie by actually killing off Vee, I think it would have made for a stronger ending. It would have made the events in the movie consequential. But with the existing ending, there is no consequence shown. Nobody gets punished. All of the problems just seem to disappear. Look, while Vee wasn’t really much of a character, I kinda liked her character, almost. And it would have been sad to see her actually die, but it would have at least meant that the movie had some sense of consequence. Instead, we just see Vee clicking “accept,” on her acceptance letter to Cal Arts. So she’s just going to college now? Nobody questions why she was involved with all that illegal shit? So many people recording and nobody is held accountable?
*** END OF SPOILERS ***
This movie has an interesting premise and one that could have been much more than it is. However the poor pacing, poor transitions in tone, poorly shot action sequences, and inconsequentiality of everything makes this movie really sub-par. Though it is cohesive enough and the wafer-thin protagonists are likable enough if you’re bored and have nothing to do and really want to watch a teen thriller. But even then, I’d recommend waiting for it to come out on Blu-Ray or Amazon or any other streaming service.