Hello everyone and welcome back to Boter Reviews Something, where I take something related to gaming and talk about why I like it and why I don’t, and pretend that my opinion matters. I even do so to things that have no business being here, and today on the chopping block is the latest case in point: Ilya Naishuller’s 2015 film, Hardcore Henry.
This review will contain minor first act spoilers for the movie.
An Unexpected Video Game Movie
Video game movies have been a staple of the silver screen for almost as long as there have been video games. From Mortal Kombat and Wing Commander in the 90’s, through Tomb Raider and Doom in the 2000s, to Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed just this year, movie studios have been trying to cash in on the popularity of the medium with varied success. But none of them do so quite so faithfully as Hardcore Henry.
“But Boter!” I hear you protest, ready to write angrily in the comments, “Hardcore Henry isn’t based on a video game! Obviously you’re just using its first person perspective as justification for a lazy opinion!” And I object, I would never bother justifying a lazy opinion. A well thought out one, however, is another story, and that’s what I’ll be doing. So belay your rage for a few paragraphs and come with me.
Yes, Hardcore is indeed told from a first person perspective, as no theatrically released films have done before. (Internet indie flicks have done it for a while, as have other genres with online distribution, but let’s keep the scope of our discussion limited to those you could watch down at the cinemas or buy in stores.) Doom got closest in 2005; though primarily shot in a conventional manner, there’s a five-minute sequence toward the end that is shown entirely in first person (longer on the unrated extended DVD). And yes, Hardcore Henry also features a lot of running, climbing and parkour rather reminiscent in movement if not style of Mirror’s Edge, to the point where I was looking at upcoming wall-runs during the running sequences. Heck, there’s even a flash of platforming with jumping across floating “platforms” toward a floating target toward the end that felt reminiscent of the last few levels of Half-Life.
But back to Doom for a second. Watch that film (if you can) and note the heart-pounding adrenaline of that scene. It’s action. No plot, just enemies and shooting and a crazy trip taken literally through the eyes of Karl Urban’s character.
Take this five minutes and multiply it by nineteen. This is what Hardcore Henry feels like.
More Action Than Any Action Film
The film opens with a five or ten minute long setup scene. You awaken in a med bay, amnestic. (The protagonist’s name is Henry but since he’s mostly just the audience surrogate, I’ll continue to use the second person as I would for a video game.) The doctor slips a ring on the finger of your new bionic hand – part of a matching set along with your legs – and tells you she’s your wife. You’re about to get the whole silent protagonist thing sorted out when boom – baddies pour into the room, abduct your lady, and you get to an escape pod to get out because apparently this lab is in the sky and you hit the pavement and shoot up baddies on the ground then this guy shows up and then dies and then shows up again and
The movie only really lets up for more exposition one more time throughout the movie. Sure, you’re told things as you sprint from set piece to set piece, each barely strung together and obviously conceived separately as something cool and awesome, left to assemble sometime later in the production process (remind you of anything?), but it’s always breathlessly, just enough to move you along. Get batteries, great. Get weapons, cool. Who are all these people and why does Sharlto Copley keep showing up?! The game – sorry, movie – only slows down to take a breath once in this whole crazy trip to tell you.
Does any of that sound familiar? It’s exactly how video games work. Some five-minute cutscenes sandwiched between half hour levels. The ratio is spot on and it shows why, for the most part, it doesn’t work on film. I wanted to tell the movie that it was okay to slow down a few more times and tell me what was going on.
The aforementioned first-person game tropes only add to the game-y effect. The parkour sequences, the platforming, the look of arms extended forward all trigger the subconscious part of the gamer’s brain that’s grown up with it over the last twenty years. Even some of the small touches here and there. Though it’s toward the end of the movie, a character sounds like he’s coming straight out of a tutorial level when he tells you, “You can’t shoot them, but you can probably grenade them. Drop a ‘nade down there, laddie.” That line alone convinces me that many of these more superficial parallels are intentional.
But the pacing? It’s the biggest commonality to draw and at times the most problematic. Even within specific scenes – there are two fight scenes that could have stood some literal slow-down-and-take-a-breath, too, darker and longer scenes that got very disorienting and needed to take a moment to stand still and show us the lay of the land. In a standard film it’d be a wide shot to show where the players stand, something to give the audience a sense of the scene before we dive in again, but with a single point of view and a single focal length, other tactics were needed and would have been appreciated.
Let’s Get Literary
That’s the filmmaker in me talking, obviously, not the gamer. Hardcore Henry works on other levels too – from a literary perspective, it’s intriguing how the audience knows no more than the primary character. There’s no room for dramatic irony when the audience can only know what the protagonist knows – it is, in fact, a situation forced by the strict adherence to the first-person perspective. As I think about it, many video games haven’t even done this lately – Portal 2 is the most recent first-person game I’ve played that comes to mind that didn’t pop out to third person for cutscenes, which could potentially let the audience in on something the protagonist doesn’t know about.
Another thing to think about from the filmmaking perspective – Hardcore Henry was shot in 3D with side-by-side GoPros. However, it has to date only received a 2D release. This is fine by me, as I’m generally not a fan of 3D, though there were a couple of moments in the movie where the two sides of the screen are intentionally misaligned until you get repaired, and I’m morbidly curious how it’d look through 3D glasses instead. My wife had a bit of trouble with motion sickness in theaters, particularly during those darker, longer actions scenes I wish had slowed down a touch, and we sat near the wall so she’d have a solid frame of reference; watching at home will be easier, particularly if we leave a light on. I myself don’t get motion sick while watching movies or playing games, but at one point while climbing a tall ladder, you look down and ulp, so be warned.
Whether or not Hardcore Henry is a good film depends on your own point of view. I loved it, though wish it had slowed down once or twice both in story and in a couple of scenes. You may find it a bit more taxing, particularly if you are prone to motion sickness.
Hardcore Henry gets: 5 out of 7
Out of 7, because the Magnificent Seven theme shows up to great effect in one of the movie’s more memorable moments. (It and Sharlto Copley in general are the two best parts of the movie.) 5, because while it’s fun to compare to the gameplay and narrative structure of a video game, there are reasons that structure stays in games and a different structure works in movies. I’m very interested to see where Ilya Naishuller goes from here; he stated in a Reddit AMA pre-release that he was in talks for two different video game adaptations.
Hardcore Henry came out on Blu-Ray and DVD July 26th and is a great start to what may become a fledgling first-person movie genre. With a few lessons to take up, I look forward to even more in the years to come.