McMillan’s Codex #34 By C.T. McMillan
Harcore Henry, and the Videogame Aesthetic’s Uses
There has always been a concern over videogames becoming more like movies and vice versa. Games designers borrow elements from film and movie directors pay attention to the appeal of video game elements. The Phantom Pain uses long shots like Children of Men, and Man of Steel features action scenes reminiscent of Bayonetta. Hardcore Henry (HH) is a unique situation in which videogames and film techniques meet harmoniously, epitomizing the power of immersive cinematography.
HH is arguably experimental with the use of the first person perspective. Every shot is through the eyes of the titular Henry as he runs and kills his way through 90 minutes of blood, guts, and mayhem. Faceless soldiers and cyborgs are massacred in large numbers and up close, the gore rendered in detail with both physical and digital effects. Each punch and trigger pulled feels personal as if you are behind the fist. The perspective can also inspire dizziness and vertigo as Henry scales buildings and drops from high places.
This extreme, first-person perspective seems like a gimmick taken from many a YouTube shorts, but in HH I feel this choice has a lot to say in regards to the genre of shooters and the meaning of camera angles. Cinematography is as important to film as a script and actors.
In Dirty Harry (1971), when the titular hero shoots the conniving villain Scorpio, the camera pulls wildly away from Harry when he does not read Scorpio his rights, and tortures him instrad. This creates a sense that Harry has exchanged his heroism for aimless vigilantism.
The opening to A New Hope (1977) showed the contrast of the rebels and empire with the small ship pursued by an enormous ship rendered even more enormous thanks to the low angle.
Dark Passage (1947) features a first act shot from the first-person perspective of Humphrey Bogart until his character received plastic surgery. By hiding his features, the film keeps the audience in alienating suspense as to who Bogart really is while oddly giving us a personal insight from the character himself, forcing us to interpret how to feel about the story.
The actual point of view (POV) of camera-work can be used to establish any number of things. Suspense is one purpose, like hiding an actor’s identity in the midst of a crime. First-person cinematography can also show intensity of emotion, with the perspective of the victim of a crime. And the angle’s use in gonzo pornography goes without saying. In videogames, the POV is taken for granted in how the angle enhances the experience. As a player, you have almost total control over the situation. Since you are only a pair of hands, you unconsciously put your self in place of the character you play. In comparison to film, the interactive elements make the POV doubly effective.
The meaning behind the first person perspective in HH is twofold. You are put in the place of the main character, but not just because of the cinematography. Henry is amnesiac, mute, and not especially accustomed to fighting at the start. As he overcomes various situations, he remembers his past and learns how to defend himself as we, the audience, learn with him. This arc is nothing new, as creating a sympathetic character is tantamount to making a good story. With HH, however, you as the viewer actually feel like this developing character.
This technique plays into the overarching homage to the videgame genre of first-person shooters and their immersive qualities. Because you (as character) have no face and voice, you (as viewer) unwittingly put yourself in lieu of those missing pieces.
The plot is also designed like a videogame, with short dialog breaks between long action scenes. Henry gets into an extended fight and pauses for a five-minute story conversation before another intense shootout.
The Crank movies take a similar approach, but Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor made the story ridiculously extreme. The premise is Jason Statham has to keep his energy up or else he dies. This means he has to take intense drugs, run, inflict pain on himself, and act like a madman at almost all times.
Some videogames are pure conflict with story barely breaking up the action, and only when necessary. Between those points you are shooting, solving puzzles, and traversing levels. Both Crank and HH do the same thing, but where the former takes this route for the mere sake of a manic pace, the latter wants to be a videogame by earnestly adapting the perspective and storytelling for film.
As for the story, like Crank the narrative serves as a vehicle for the many violent set pieces. Some people are after Henry for reasons I cannot give away without spoilers. Let’s say he needs to gather information to discover the location of his kidnapped wife. Said information requires Henry to track down dangerous individuals associated with the same people trying to kill him. This puts him in daring situations where he climbs into a tall building, hijacks a tank, and chases someone using mind-boggling parkour skills.
We stay with Henry the entire time, glued to his perspective, and moving with each head turn. Every establishing shot, master, and close up is through his eyes. Visual queues are established from where he looks and you must to pay attention to catch everything. A lot of the tricks are made in editing with very obvious cuts to create the illusion of a pure POV perspective. At the same time, the near constantly shaking camera can be disorienting. Thankfully, there are plenty of pauses in the action and moments where the camera is moving at a smooth pace.
In comparison to the videogame uses of this technique, there is the obvious lack of physical interaction while you play witness. You do not control Henry the way you would with a controller in your hands. At the same time, HH does such a good job of keeping you immersed in the character’s viewpoint that you feel like a part of the action. The film uses first person shooter tropes such as the silent amnesiac protagonist to allow viewers to project themselves into the movie. This is simply a matter of empathy and your ability to apply yourself into the equation and bear witness.
Hardcore Henry may not be based on an established property, but the movie is closer to a videogame than actual videogame adaptations. If you can stomach the shaky cam and ultra-violence, the movie is well worth the potential dizziness and anxiety.