You could argue that one of the first films ever made, the Lumières’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, was shot from a first person perspective: that of an individual next to some tracks, watching the train come in. Indeed, the effect of the train bearing down on an individual was so shocking that audiences supposedly (read: apocryphally) leapt out of their seats in fear, running from the hall screaming like savages bewitched by a new technology.
Technology is often the impetus for such shots. Think of the cell phones and ever-shrinking digital cameras used to capture the action in found-footage flicks like Cloverfield, photographed, essentially, from the perspective of a character named Hud (a play on HUD, or "Heads Up Display"). Or consider the virtual reality clips from Strange Days that Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) traffics in. From experiencing an orgy to taking part in the robbery of a restaurant to watching the murder of a rapper by out-of-control LAPD cops, Lenny’s SQUID vids offer a way of escaping from mundane reality.
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Escape is the central tenet of Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s head-trip inside the eponymous actor. Travel down a secret tunnel in a nondescript office building and you can spend some time in the mind—and behind the eyes—of one of our greatest actors. The first-person shots here convey a sense of wonder and confusion and titillation, a sort of vacation from one’s self with all sorts of metaphysical implications.
Less intellectual is the first-person POV sequence in Doom. Based on the video game of the same name, this scene successfully imitated the way first-person shooters limit perspective in order to reduce spatial awareness and create scares: There’s nothing quite as nerve-wracking as turning around and coming face to face with a demon eager to rip out your spine and beat you about the head with it.
It is such first person shooters—Doom, Call of Duty, Bioshock, etc.—that Hardcore Henry hopes to claim as inspiration. But more fitting culprits for this monstrosity is the rise of parkour YouTube clips shot on head-held GoPros, and POV pornography, the sort that devotees of VR rigs such as the Oculus Rift hope will become mainstream in the near future. Hardcore Henry, like porn, is designed to do nothing more than titillate the senses: visually incoherent, a choppy mess from start to finish, this minimally scripted and psychotically shot horror show manages the neat trick of being far stupider than even a below-average PS2 or Dreamcast title while offering none of the actual entertainment of playing a video game.
Hardcore Henry opens with a title sequence that lovingly details the various ways in which objects—blades, bullets, broken bottles—can enter or otherwise perturb flesh. Shot in slow motion and in high-res, it’s both the most coherent portion of the whole film and also a rather succinct view of the prurient interests of Russian writer and director Ilya Naishuller.
The plot is nonexistent. Henry awakes on an operating room table where a woman claiming to be his wife named Estelle (Haley Bennett) attaches a cybernetic arm and leg to his shattered body. Henry remembers nothing. And before he’s able to regain his voice, a telekinetic madman named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) breaks in, threatens Estelle, and forces the pair to make their escape.
While on the run, Henry is aided by Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). Or, really, "Jimmies," as Henry's newfound ally—who helpfully spouts exposition on cue and sends Henry on his missions—seems to have a variety of identities. Every time Jimmy gets blown away by Akan's mercenaries, he shows up again in a different outfit sporting a slightly different accent. (Copley’s turn as Jimmy—especially during a musical number involving several of his replicas—is the one semi-interesting thing in the entire film and suggests that someone with a modicum of visual sense could have made Hardcore Henry watchable, if not, you know, Oscar bait.)
Hardcore Henry adopts virtually all the tropes of video games—talky cut scenes; fighting tutorials; idiotic plotting; guns in random drawers for no good reason; maps with flashing dots marking where you’re supposed to go—without critiquing them or suggesting a way to improve the form. I’m not even sure this counts as homage, really, since anyone who constructed a video game so visually distracting would find themselves out of work in short order.
In all seriousness: I spent the last hour of the 90-minute Hardcore Henry resisting the urge to vomit. Not because of the puerility of the violence or the inanity of the plot, though these elements were indeed retch-worthy. Rather, the GoPro-filmed movie is so shaky and jittery and bumbly and stumbly that waves of motion sickness washed over me. When the film was over I stood, shakily, and had to sit back down. A belch arose, unbidden. Bile crept up the back of my throat. I felt like Alex in A Clockwork Orange after he’d been subjected to the Ludovico technique.
It’s hard for me to imagine an audience member watching this film and thinking, "Yes, this is a pleasing aesthetic." It’s harder still to think of any filmmaker thinking this was suitable for projection on a 500 square foot screen. My objections aren’t solely related to the fact that viddying this dumpster fire felt like literal torture: the GoPro used by Naishuller produced images of such low quality that they look like they were shot on 8mm film. It’s not even grainy so much as blurry and washed out. Sets lacking decent lighting—such as the basement-bound brothel we spend 10 minutes in midway through the film—are muddy, hard to discern.
Look, I’m not opposed to mindless violence and gratuitous nudity, per se. I play a couple of video games a year and enjoy the occasional FPS. That being said: I question not only the aesthetic but also the moral sensibilities of anyone who finds this film anything other than reprehensible. It’s a travesty on virtually every level.
I’m against imprisoning artists for their work on general principle. But Hardcore Henry is so bad I’m thinking of making an exception to the rule.