Hardcore Henry is a scifi action film shot entirely in first person. Unlike handheld camera movies like Blair Witch or Cloverfield, there’s never an outside look at the protagonist; we’re supposed to be literally seeing through his eyes. It feels like someone’s taken a first person shooter game and rendered it in film, which is its strength as a gimmick, but also a major weakness.
First off, if you have any problems with getting motion sick in movies that have a lot of shaky camera movements, I do not recommend this one. That’s the number one problem with the first person format here. We’re getting all the shakiness of a mounted camera, which actually works counter to the first person shooter effect because it reminds us that we’re looking through a camera, not actually experiencing the film first person.
Let me explain what I mean.
When you’re running, jumping, doing whatever as a person, you’ll notice that your vision doesn’t actually shake that much, even if you’re really pounding ground. That’s because there are a ton of physical factors, from the stabilization of your neck muscles to your inner ears to the way your brain processes the visual input that work to make what you see relatively smooth. You experience, say, some bobbing motion if you’re running, but not a lot of the vibration or shaking even if that’s literally what’s happening to you. You’re compensating for it.
This is what makes first person shooter games work. The movement you get on the screen is very smooth, with at most some up and down indicating running. (Here’s an example of gameplay from Destiny.) But you’ll notice a lot of the indicators of physical motion we get are from seeing the arms move, for example. So in a weird way, a first person shooter looks more real than something like Hardcore Henry because it more closely apes how we visually experience movement. Even if in a technical sense, Hardcore Henry is more real because it’s literally a camera that is strapped to someone.
This is something that the people who made the Doom movie really got when they shot the film’s famous first person shooter scene. (Though arguably, they made it a tad too smooth.)
Unfortunately, with Hardcore Henry, we’re spending an entire movie watching a camera get flung around rather than perceiving what’s going on in a much more stabilized way, like the character Henry would. This works against the movie, because while I’m sure a lot of the action sequences were extremely cool, I couldn’t tell what the fuck was going on in most of them. There was too much unstable movement for me to be able to track it. So it’s an interesting gimmick, but I wish it had worked better.
As far as the actual plot goes, it really does feel like standard video game setup. Hello, player, here is your cipher character that you occupy, here’s your goal (save your wife Estelle), here’s the major antagonist, here’s your contact Jimmy who will give you the various missions you need to run to level up. The fight at the end certainly felt like Epic Final Boss Battle. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some fun stuff in there if you’re a fan of action movies and just want to see some badguys get punched. There’s also a couple little twists to be had, including the deal with Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) apparently being the master of disguise, and the denouement with Estelle.
On the other hand, I really could have done without the extended bordello scene, which highlighted the fact that other than Estelle, there really weren’t any women in the movie who weren’t gun-wielding prostitutes. (Guys, you do realize that many a non-dude-bro plays FPS games and thus might have an interest in your film, right?) And I still don’t know what the deal was with the villain, Akan, other than he just wants a private army of cyborgs because reasons. Reasons only an albino with psychic powers could possibly understand and doesn’t see fit to share with you, the viewer. Which is really another contributing factor to the FPS game feel, because let’s be honest, some of those games are pretty thin on the plot. Who needs reasons when you can grab the heavy ammo drop?
I think we’re pretty close to having a full, first person film that’s not going to make people motion sick. This just isn’t it. And here’s hoping that when that film finally comes out, we can skip the whorehouse scene.