In a conversation earlier this year, I made reference to Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping as “the most 2016 movie of all time.” After viewing Nerve, I feel the need to rescind that epithet; although Popstar may be a wonderful, hilarious movie in its own right, its inherent 2016-ness is purely from a calculated standpoint. Everything of its time in Popstar is largely there for the sake of establishment, and were Popstar filmed in any other time the clothes that it wears and the icons it includes would change to reflect that. This isn’t a dig against Popstar in the slightest, but rather an asterisk–a footnote of elaboration that its timeliness may also be the key point to its future timelessness.
By contrast, Nerve earns its status as zeitgeist by being just so much a product of its time–not in that it resembles everything else in current cinema but that its neon-telegraphed nightmares are so explicitly of the mid-2010s. Five years ago, Snapchat was a basement startup, Vine wasn’t even a thing, and the word “eSports” was a joke, not a legitimate way to earn a living. In the next five years–who knows? But in the summer of 2016–the year in which the first children born after 9/11 will enter high school, the year in which no elementary school student knows a world before smartphones–Nerve makes absolutely perfect sense.
When else but now, one wonders, would Nerve‘s central throughline–about a mobile game that encourages its users to either watch or perform increasingly dangerous stunts in real-time–play out so accessibly? For millions living today, the most immediately visible members of their generation are those who have made a name for themselves through a self-conducted transformation into icon; the stars of Instagram and Twitter are no longer carefully-managed media conglomerate machinations but former nobodies who have willingly manufactured themselves into brands, symbols, and mouthpieces–and everybody, everybody, is watching them.
Or, at least, it feels that way.
In the hands of older generations, Nerve‘s cautionary tale about a killer truth-or-dare app might function as a horror story bewildered by the lemminglike nature of Digital Natives. Millennial co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, however, treat their decade-younger subjects with an incredible amount of understanding and empathy–much more Cool Uncle than Father Knows Best. Joost and Schulman don’t ask why these teenagers would get so caught up in a world of instant fame and voyeuristic pleasure; instead, they treat it as a given of the modern world and just move on.
Much more interesting, they find, is an exploration of the kind of society that would enable such a predicament to begin with. Nerve‘s primary anxiety lies not with the participants of the game but with the anonymous crowds egging them on. “Watchers”, as the film terms them, tune in constantly. They make bets, pay competitors to sabotage one another, and–perhaps most brilliantly illustrated–make the same kinds of disparaging remarks one would find trawling through literally any communications channel online. The invisible crowd, protected by its anonymity, becomes a morass baying for blood and erotic release unlike anything capable by spectators tuned in to old media.
This, ultimately, leads to the film’s most brilliant scene–which somehow isn’t one of its multitudes of insane, point-of-view stunts. After witnessing the death of a competitor in real-time, thousands upon thousands of Watchers simply close the app, toss their device aside, and return to whatever it is that they were doing. The true menace of the internet age, Joost and Schulman posit, is the rendering of even death itself into the banal–momentary entertainment to be scrolled through on a news feed.