How the Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost-directed film encapsulates society’s weariness towards the World Wide Web.
The etymology of ‘utopia’ comes from the Greek ou, meaning ‘no’, and topos, meaning ‘place’. However, many confuse the etymology of the first letter of ‘utopia’ with eu, which means ‘good’, in order to construct a clearer boundary between a utopia and dystopia (with dys- meaning ‘bad’ or ‘difficult’). Yet utopias and dystopias are the same; like the dark and macabre worlds of traditional dystopias, the ‘no-place’ translation of the Greek etymology of utopia presents either a world in a state of suspension, a place in which movement seems impossible, or emphasises the fact that a utopia will always be a ‘no-place’ and non-existent since it’s something that is unachievable. Whilst this genre of imagining a brave new world began in the novel form, through films such as Metropolis and The Truman Show it’s clear the genre has become a part of film history.
More recently, the utopian/dystopian genre has been revived in Internet and social media-focused films. From films that take place entirely on a computer screen, for example Unfriended, to the paranoia created from social media in shows such as Black Mirror and Mr. Robot, the 2010s have seen films use the World Wide Web in order to create a sense of horror and paranoia in the societies they are presenting. It’s in Nerve, a film about the eponymous fictional game that is a higher-stakes version of Twitter, Periscope, and Snapchat combined, where the film industry’s presentation of social media being intrinsic to an utopian world is encapsulated.
The film focuses on Emma Roberts’s character, Vee, an aspiring photographer who’s unlikely to take risks with her life – in the first scene with her character audiences see her about to reject an offer to her favourite university in favour of less spontaneous experiences. Contrast this with Vee’s friend Sydney (Emily Meade), who first appears through a computer screen and whose initial literal two-dimensionality continues into reality as she becomes the stereotypical ‘daring’ girl, and the film’s most prominent idea is presented. This idea is what the premise of the ‘Nerve’ game is about; you can choose to be a watcher – someone who watches people complete dares – or the player – the person fulfilling these dares. The film spends its opening setting up the premise that Vee is the watcher and Sydney the player, with Vee following the film’s sub-genre of a coming-of-age film by wanting to prove people wrong and becoming a player. While Nerve isn’t the greatest or smartest film ever made (nor does it try to be), the way in which the film’s directors change the landscape of New York City in order to portray its utopian world of a ‘no-space’, with the Internet being the biggest ‘no-space’ of all, has something to say for the way Nerve’s directors – Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – choose to present social media and by extension the history of social media on film.
Pre-dating the Internet, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times uses its own version of FaceTime and Skype in order to portray an instantly recognizable ubiquitous leader; someone that is able to constantly be watching without necessarily being physically present. While the film’s predictions about questionably narcissistic video-calling apps were correct, the idea of social media and the Internet being used for the power of the single, powerful subject was wrong (unfortunately bar one, that will not be linked here for savior of your mental health). To jump forward in time, Nerve emphasizes where Modern Times’s predictions went wrong. The game Vee and her friends use allows them to feel some form of fame and glory by completing the dare, but it’s the people watching – the anonymous ‘watchers’ hidden from view of their phone’s cameras – that have the true power. The film show’s the dangers of social media’s ability to provide mass anonymity, with the neon-lit utopia/dystopia setting of New York City providing the perfect backdrop to the immersive and dangerous world Schulman and Joost create.
Nerve’s depiction of the death of the single person and rise of the anonymous ‘watcher’ can be traced back to early representations of social media. From filmmakers showing the visuals of texts and websites in close-ups to placing beautifully created images of texts next to characters and more recently to the rise of entirely screen-based films, it’s clear that the digital has become a part of the real, and in some cases taken over reality. In the above image taken from a scene in Nerve you can see the players’ screen names used to connote their location in New York; the city isn’t New York City here, but instead another element that is a part of the game. The onscreen location pointers submerge the city into the virtual world of “@”s, likes, and bright attention-seeking neon colors. It doesn’t matter who these people at the location of the screen names are, but where they are and what they’re doing.
From Open Windows to Unfriended to Friend Request, the recent surge in screen-based films in the thriller genre signals society’s anxiety towards social media and the unknown of what it means for the development of current and future generations, the democracy it is able to provide, and the influx of information that is constantly available to anyone around the world. Where films of the past used the thriller and horror genres to represent society’s nervousness about sex, women’s liberation, or the act of growing up, the current film industry’s focus on social media in these genres emphasizes the anxiety surrounding the Internet. Nerve carries on this tradition; the film opens much like its Unfriended and Open Windows predecessors, with the dominance of the computer screen interrupted by quick cutaway close-ups to Vee’s reactions, allowing for a sense of human to contrast the virtual world of unreality.
However, the film also furthers the social media thriller by combining this screen-based world with the depiction of the Internet as reality. Like Mr. Robot and Chatroom, Nerve uses the space that exists outside of the Internet – in this case New York – and makes this space become a visualized representation of what the Internet would look like if it were physically manifest. What results is the aforementioned neon lighting, the fast-paced editing, and the constant sense of anonymity through the dark setting. What links all films these films and shows is what differentiates them from texts in which social media is merely a part of the story rather than the whole story. For example, the way films and TV shows such as Jane the Virgin, Sherlock, and The Shallows present their texts and video calls next to the character and moving with them against Nerve’s portrayal of the physicality of the Internet signifies how the former examples show that when simply using a text as a narrative device, filmmakers try to make it seem as much a part of the character and their life as possible. Meanwhile, films such as Nerve dramatise the ubiquity of social media through their physicality in order to both show the anxieties surrounding the subject, but also to follow the genre of the thriller and its tropes of something trying to get inside of you that you cannot get out.
What makes the current portrayal of social media as a utopian world and this genre so exciting is the fact that social media itself is a constantly changing form. Therefore, the similarly ever-changing film industry will have to adjust and think of new creative ways in order to portray the Internet. With Black Mirror’s depiction of a paranoid social media-fueled world and film’s such as James Ponsoldt’s The Circle being released this year, the portrayal of the Internet and social media within film and television is evolving once again. From simply being mundane close-ups to portraying the anxieties of teenagers to Nerve’s representation of social media as a real world for its teenage characters, albeit a utopian/dystopian world, the next direction filmmaker’s seem to be taking the social media genre to is the future. From the previously mentioned The Circle, it seems that in this future characters mistake the etymology of ‘utopia’ with eu (‘good’), suggesting the false sense of settling social media and the Internet creates in a utopia. This evolution of the genre couldn’t be more timely, and in the video below – by Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting – the evolution of the Internet to the most present films can be seen.