The original Bourne trilogy (let’s not speak of the regrettable attempt at passing the torch from Matt Damon to Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Supremacy) was made up of movies that were bruisingly, brilliantly precise in their action and less so in terms of the relevance they flirted with. Their paranoia, cynicism, and grim envisioning of murders being committed in the name of national security felt timely without offering direct correlations, and were ultimately more about setting a dark tone than making an incisive comment.
But of all the indignities Damon’s title character, dug out of retirement after nine years, has to suffer in the disappointing Jason Bourne, the worst is how out-of-touch the new conspiracy he unravels feels, particularly when compared with fellow recent release Nerve. A romantic thriller about an iPhone game from Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Nerve is sharper and smarter about surveillance and social media than the latest installment of the spy franchise. Which might be less surprising if Jason Bourne weren’t so concerned with both topics, which are revealed to be integral to the CIA’s latest nefarious black ops program.
After years of operations with tasteful furniture-line names like Treadstone and Blackbriar, the CIA has focused its attention on something more practical and less overtly murder-y called Iron Hand, which is connected to a Google/Facebook-like company run by Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed). Despite the ominous label, Iron Hand turns out to be a lot less dramatic than the previous Bourne initiatives, in which handsome men were expertly trained, lightly brainwashed, and then positioned as sleeper agent assassins around the world.
Jason Bourne compensates for its lack of urgency by stretching for greater relevance, with Silicon Valley dealings, a Julian Assange stand-in, and anti-austerity riots. But it just comes across as naive. Its version of the CIA, dominated by a crusty member of the old guard (Tommy Lee Jones) and a steely representative of the new (Alicia Vikander), is prepared to kill to cover up the fact that it’s demanding backdoor access to a widely used social media application — inexplicable given that the FBI and Apple have been having a similar battle out in the open for a while now. The Bourne movies have always existed in a world in constant surveillance, the reach of which has grown in each installment, and yet this latest film has more optimistic ideas about expectations of privacy than the average internet denizen.
Infinitely more on point is the way shy Staten Island high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) impulsively signs away her life when registering for the title game in Nerve. It’s a 24-hour P2P game in which participants choose to be either players or watchers, the latter paying for the privilege of following the adventures of the former, who document themselves taking on a series of user-generated dares for money. The app pulls together information from each player’s internet footprint to make the dares more personal, which is how Vee is made to go up against her more outgoing bestie Sydney (Emily Meade). Arriving in theaters less than a month after millions of people gave away full access to their Google accounts in order to sign up for Pokémon Go, Nerve’s capturing of the blitheness with which its participants surrender their personal info for a chance at internet fame feels all too accurate.
Naturally, it all goes to hell, the consequences catching up with Vee in an over-the-top finale. But before that, Nerve is a dizzyingly of-the-moment good time, a dystopian meet-cute in present-day New York. There are benefits to having the attention of anonymous all-seeing eyes, which, for Vee, means getting teamed up with dreamboat Ian (Dave Franco) for dares that lead to dashing through a department store in skivvies and attempting a risky stunt on a motorcycle. The better the two do, the more they're watched, their conversations broadcast live, their locations mapped, watchers filming them on the street as they pass by. But Nerve has a sense of the sadism online mobs are capable of as well — as more players drop out and the stakes grow higher, the dares escalate too. Soon, it’s clear that for the watchers, seeing someone get hurt or killed is just as exciting as seeing them succeed.
Nerve’s ending doesn’t work because it uses hacking as a deus ex machina, and also because it tries to come up with a scenario in which an anonymous internet crowd feels chastised and shamed, something the real world has yet to manage. But its fictional game is eerily plausible, as are the liberties its players allow it.
What Nerve gets that Jason Bourne doesn’t is that privacy doesn’t need to be stolen from people. We surrender degrees of it all the time, for something as silly as a social media game that gives us the attention of strangers online. And it’s not that we’re not aware of the consequences; we just don’t think they’ll ever matter to us — until they do.