Anonymous hackers, a once-feared trope in science-fiction, moved from the realm of urban legend to an unfortunate modern reality – strange, masked characters accessing our information, watching our every move and invading all aspects of our privacy are not so unbelievable anymore. Nerve (2016), a post-cyberpunk, teen techno-thriller film starring Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) and Dave Franco (21 Jump Street), encompasses all viewers’ worries that our phones are looking back at us.
Vee (Emma Roberts), a quiet introvert with big ambitions, is emotionally coerced into playing an online game called Nerve. In this online game of “Truth or Dare, but without the truth”, users are invited to decide whether to be “WATCHERS” or “PLAYERS” – watchers watch, and players play, (obviously). In a misguided attempt to prove her popular friend Sydney (Emily Meade) wrong about being a frightened watcher, Vee selects player. Online watchers in turn create dares for Vee in exchange for money, all while she is watched by thousands through the camera on her phone.
The game uses the excitement of social media attention to inflate Vee’s ego – after completing fickle “dares” such as trying on an expensive dress, leaving a store half-naked and, first and foremost, kissing an attractive, mysterious stranger named Ian (Dave Franco), Vee’s viewership is vast becoming the highest of most accounts on Nerve. In turn, the viewer sees Vee become cocky and reckless (perhaps a social commentary on sharing your life online) when she rides a motorcycle with a blindfolded Ian, reaching speeds of 60mph down a motorway. At this point, the cinema audience will be firmly planted at the edge of their seat, biting their nails down to the cuticle and making uneasy noises. We want her away from Nerve, whilst all-the-while enjoying her transformation from “ugly” duckling (an exaggeration) to a reckless, dangerous female protagonist.
Nerve successfully approaches the conspiracies of anonymous online hacking and civilian control by completely omitting the need for an antagonist. The film’s excitement lies in the mystery of who is controlling Vee and Ian – an omniscient force who knows their deep, dark secrets – but we are never enlightened to who this is. Therefore, Nerve cleverly flips thriller tropes upside down, since, quite obviously, the antagonist is not a threatening crime lord, nor a scary, masked internet villain, but is represented by their need to survive their own fears, battled through in increasingly dangerous dares. The conclusion of the film explores crowd (or mob) mentality, responsibility and overcoming fears, reservations and cowardice.
Overall, Emma Roberts delivers a fantastic performance away from the horror genre, within which she has become comfortable in recent years. A pleasant change of pace for the teen film industry, alongside a familiar face, comes a movie successfully targeted at a large millennial audience, but is probably an enjoyable watch for anyone – unless you’re afraid of heights.
Words: Otis Robinson