Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Hardcore Henry (2015)

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This awesome Mondo poster for Hardcore Henry was created by Cesaer Moreno for a screening earlier this year.  Visit IGN for more information on that event and Moreno’s work!

 

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Death has a name.  It’s ‘Pinky’.

Illya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry (2015) opened to praise at a few festivals, but hasn’t yet seen similar success in wide release.  Such difficulty in finding an audience could be telling of the sort of work it tries to be–the way it tells its story–versus what is desired and accepted within the current cinematic market.  And, since comparisons of Hardcore Henry’s ‘gimmick’, its subjective lens, to 2005’s Doom were bound to proliferate as soon as the film was announced, we won’t run shy of that earlier feature here, either.  In fact, though promotional materials for Doom (including its own poster) touted the subjective camera perspective, less than a quarter of that film’s story is shot from that angle.  The difference in Hardcore Henry’s gimmick–what might initially make it seem more gimmicky than Doom–is that its entire run time employs the subjective camera perspective.  This is, of course,the same sort of angle employed in most scenes of most found footage fiction.

But the presence of a subjective camera within the scene of the fiction does not make a piece found footage fiction.  Strictly speaking, any camera that exists within the reality of any scene it is recording is subjective; the subjective camera holds the potential for being wielded by any character who can reach it.  But that accessibility is quite often a technicality: does the inmate in a prison film necessarily have the same access to the security camera that might capture him for a few scenes as the student documentarian in the midst of investigation?  Usually, that doomed kid’s camcorder footage, made at least in part by himself, will be discovered, processed for an end, and delivered to an in-narrative viewer.  The inmate, though, has no reasonable expectation of ever gaining control over that security camera, to the point that he might not even recognize its presence even as we are viewing him through it.

Thus, even though we are addressing Hardcore Henry as part of a series on found footage fiction, it, like others we have studied, does not necessarily hold an uncontested place as found footage.  For, while Hardcore Henry presents its narrative via a subjective camera, is that perspective meaningfully functional to the delivery of the narrative?  Is there anything inherent to the tale that makes it important that we are seeing it in first rather than third person?  Do any of the participants on-screen at all recognize that someone, somewhere, somehow might view the footage they are all contributing to?  Only Aken, the antagonist, ever displays any ability to control the broadcasting of the chronicle, but he never shows any actual intention to distribute it, perhaps because doing so would render any in-narrative viewer witness to a large-scale, very well funded criminal organization.  So, answering to Hardcore Henry’s place as a bonafide found footage film is a rather different prospect than when we earlier asked such questions about films like  The Conspiracy or even Megan is Missing; there, whether by the antagonist, the protagonist, or someone else who still exists in that world, the camera is being physically held, pointed, wielded.  And, implicit in the act of a character wielding the camera is that prop’s subsequent potential to help further the plot, resolve it, complicate it, or reshape it in some other way, but to nevertheless be held within and subject to it.  The viewing angle on a scene may shift, but the subjective camera itself does not ever simply to phase into an objective state.

Hardcore Henry allows us to see the action through the hero’s eyes–accomplished by having the various actors who portray[1] Henry wear a body camera (on their heads, I presume; an obvious detail to point out, but it will become important later).  There is a flashback, presented and expanded on a few times over the course of the film, but that footage is also shot in first person[2].  However, in a scene from early in the second half of the film, we find out that Henry’s bionic eyes, the eyes through which we are witnessing the events, are also transmitting live to the antagonist.  Were this a found footage film, we could take this opportunity to question its chain of delivery and who the intended audience is; it makes sense that, as Aken’s experimentation has enabled Henry to serve as a recorder, so he would have live access to whatever Henry sees.  But our viewing is not live, so should we ask if and for what reason this footage might have been archived, in-narrative, for later view?  Apparently not, as no part of the rest of the film seems to be at all concerned with answering that question; we might say that Hardcore Henry isn’t found footage because it never takes the time to consider itself as found footage.

However, Hardcore Henry’s footage is not not the sort of thing that could end up on the YouTube of its world if someone with access decided to go public[3], and, in that sense, it is relatable enough to both archival videos and independent, digitally-distributed found footage fiction creations.  But the ability to capture the action is secondary to the function of Henry’s eyes as enabling him to, of course, navigate the action.  Rather than the film being in some way made for our viewing–a contextual, in-narrative intention of most all actual found footage tales, regardless of what they’re chronicling or what they come to chronicle–we are more strictly ‘along for the ride’ here.  Might we then begin to consider this ‘passive subjective’ style to constitute a broader sub-genre, which found footage, faux documentary, and fake news broadcast might all fit within?  Or, which some sub-genres might fit into, while others don’t?  Or, might the style be something different still?  Somehow tangential to these other forms, rather than encompassing them?  It becomes difficult to say, in part because the consistent subjective camera makes Hardcore Henry surprisingly unique among big-studio cinema.  Consider that, while the comparison to Doom is obvious, that film, itself, was a decade old at the time of Hardcore Henry’s release.

This, then, is where we begin to question what Hardcore Henry actually is and what it might actually be trying to do, rather than simply assuming it to be derivative of specific other films and games.  Earlier, we noted that Hardcore Henry’s consistent use of a subjective camera makes it seem more gimmicky than Doom.  However, Doom, being the cinematic adaptation of a well-known video game franchise, included its subjectively-shot content explicitly to gain the favor of that franchise’s fans.  Hardcore Henry, on the other hand, did not enjoy any pre-existing videogame basis to build from–thereby rendering it, and its relationship with fps gaming, something different.  For, though not having a root in any specific fps title, Hardcore Henry is clearly informed by a host of fps sensibilities that both tie into and extend past its shooting aesthetic (pun intended).  While Doom attempts to translate a single franchise from one medium to another, Hardcore Henry takes on a broader job that might have worked better if it had been tried before that prior, more pointed attempt; the film endeavors to represent the dynamics and sensibilities–in short, the culture of narration–of first person shooters, altogether, as constituting an entire type of narrative experience.  This is, perhaps, because first-person shooters seem like they should be more amenable to traditional cinema than, say, a puzzle game or side-scrolling fighting game[4].  On the other hand, the producers of Hardcore Henry might have chosen to model their film on fps dynamics because the ‘camera’ and pacing of that type of game is, as we have seen, so immediately relatable to (if not so simply resembling) the more tested perspective of the found footage film.[5]

At any rate, Hardcore Henry offers a metanarrative, but not one so overtly displayed through the plot conceit of the subjective camera’s prominence as it would be in found footage fiction.  Instead, the story’s deliberate, consistent filming approach implies the content creators’ considerations–and subsequent rejection–of other presentation options.  Rather than making the characters (and, practically-speaking, the film itself) explicitly aware of the creation of the media product, Hardcore Henry offers metacognitive complications through the restrictions of its subjective presentation; the single camera unyieldingly shoots from Henry’s perspective, thereby limiting (though not eliminating) the fungibility of time and space which is ubiquitous to objectively-shot stories.  Meanwhile, the film’s composition–not only the camera orientation, but several plot tropes–evokes the sort of cutscene and gameplay experiences that we might expect from any modern fps.

As such, while the camera orientation of Hardcore Henry is, itself, hardly original, it is nevertheless novel; the makers of Doom were only confident enough to assume the subjective perspective for the final 25 minutes of their production.  Hardcore Henry, removed by a decade, was developed with a historical perspective on that earlier critical failure, and so, in light of the project’s continuance, we are compelled to wonder if ‘the gimmick’ might not be more adequately referred to as ‘the experiment’.  For, there is something at once familiar, alienating, and engaging in seeing Sharlto Copley’s live-action performance of Jimmy, standing right before us[6]looking very much like what we would see if we were facing, say, a non-playable character in Call of Duty or Wolfenstein[7].  One reason mounting the camera on or near the actor’s head becomes important, then–besides the obvious plot sensibility–is that doing so provides the viewer with an angle on another standing body that matches the sort of foreshortened renderings we have come to expect not so much in real life as in modern, well-developed first person shooters[8].

So, what we’d previously identified as a benefit of the found footage camera–namely, its physical independence from the characters–comes to hold that form back from transgressing customary media boundaries the way Hardcore Henry does.  For, even if the found footage camera does occasionally give us views resembling what we would see in gaming, that reminiscence is both fragmentary and fleeting, as the found footage plot gets to those shots for disparate reasons: generally, the characters (and, subsequently, the camera) of found footage fiction are more focused on chronicling (and surviving) the plot than actively contributing to it the way Henry does.  It’s hard to aim a camera and a gun at the same time, after all, so it’s convenient to the telling of Henry’s own story that he doesn’t have to make that choice.

Having the camera placed in Henry’s eyes, though, does more than just free up his other gun hand[9]; as the narrative kicks off from Henry’s perspective, we can assume that we’re going to see all the action from that same perspective, which we do.  But, unlike found footage fiction, those characters who address the camera directly in Hardcore Henry aren’t just addressing a camera, nor do they do so with any anticipation of catharsis[10].  Rather, Hardcore Henry’s camera, as it exists in the narrative itself, has a human identity physically wrapped around it–Henry’s own–and, even though he (tellingly) doesn’t have the capacity to verbally respond when spoken to, it is clearly understood that the characters who are addressing the camera are engaging him directly, as an individual, in discourse that, itself, reinforces his sense of personhood and valuation within his immediate community–despite that most of the members of that immediate community are trying to kill him.  The found footage camera is, by contrast, a pure receiver of whatever the wielder wishes to express or train it on; the only time that we might see a character come into conflict with the found footage camera directly, for instance, is if it were to stop working, to violate its primary function as a recorder of the events.

Henry, meanwhile, is recognized for his personhood, his viability in participating in human communication, even when he’s being lied to.  Henry’s ‘wife’, Estelle, for instance, turns out to have a pretty big secret; given a found footage version of the same story, where there existed an independent, wieldable camera, she might very well take the opportunity to go off somewhere and confess to the impartial, unresponsive lens in the typical moment of found footage catharsis, thereby making the viewer aware of a plot twist that Henry would still not be privy to.  But such is not the case here; since the camera is embedded in Henry, confessing to it would be confessing to him.  Yet, if she cannot speak to Henry about certain things, it can only be because she recognizes his status as a thinking, acting individual, capable of intelligent, personalized responses–human capacities still quite beyond those of any mechanical recording device.

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Recognition?  Being??  IT’S HEGEL OUTTA NOWHERE!!!

 


[1] ‘Play’?  ‘Stand in for’?  The nature of the protagonist as unseen–and the fact that, because of that, several actors fill the role–complicates word choice here.

[2] The flashback sequence presents an interesting and problematic re-positioning of the viewer, whose position with respect to the narrative isn’t terribly clear to begin with.  Regardless of whatever other things we might or might not say about the role we play as we view the footage Henry is recording, who must we be if we are privy to his actual memories?  We might be able to gloss this with something about how Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy was able to ‘detect and remove a memory block’ so that, by narrative logic, all Henry’s memories are thus rendered ‘watchable’ without any further moral implications or scientific/medical conundrums.  But meh.

[3] Of course, assuming that all of the footage we’re seeing is actually being recorded in-narrative and that those recordings would still be accessible after the antagonist’s death.  We must also assume that the footage hasn’t already been edited, in-narrative, for entertainment rather than archival purposes.  A tough prospect, as, while Hardcore Henry includes some ambient music, it also has an overt soundtrack that, among other things, provides pacing for the action scenes.

[4] Not that cinematic adaptations of such types haven’t also been attempted–see such diverse examples as Battleship (2012) or the Mortal Kombat series (1995-present)–but they don’t tend to try to emulate the gaming experience itself.  Even 2003’s House of the Dead, released two years before Doom and also based on a popular first-person shooter, does not attempt to take on a subjective angle in any noteworthy way.

[5] A notable early example of a subjective camera piece: Robert Montgomery’s 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake.  There, the vast majority of the film is told in first person, from the point of view of Philip Marlowe.  The film wasn’t critically successful, however, and few subsequent examples of the subjective technique, especially as used in studio films, are to be found.

[6] I’ve just noticed the use of the collective pronoun here; Copley is not merely standing before the protagonist, but before us, the viewers who are seeing the action through Henry’s eyes, regardless of how well or poorly we might project ourselves into his position otherwise.  My own word choice here thus betrays that the camera angle conceit is, to whatever degree, successful.

[7] Especially in that old-school British soldier’s uniform!

[8] Compare Hardcore Henry’s game-informed angles to the aforementioned Lady in the Lake; there, the screen direction tends to hold the actors at a greater distance from the subjective camera, perhaps precisely in order to prevent that same unflattering foreshortening that the customs of mid-20th C. studio filmmaking would have viewed dimly.

[9] Notice the fancy grammatical maneuver required here: how many cameras are there? As previously noted, the film was shot with a single camera at a time–one angle on all the action–and that image is all the viewer sees.  However, even as we follow along with Henry, there are a number of points at which the view is split and distorted; in those scenes, Henry’s eyes are not looking in the same direction.  at the same time.  Such effects are accomplished with basic shooting and editing work that involves two cameras; however, the rest of the film, shot on a single camera at a time, is nevertheless meant to represent the image Henry captures in the two cameras in his two eyes.  Thus, there aren’t as many cameras involved in the real shooting of the scenes as there are within the narrative as it’s happening.  The respective worlds, that of the story and that of its production as fiction, distinguish themselves from one another even in the most immediate of ways, in the very telling of the tale.

[10] No room here, for, say, the sorts of tearful confessions common to major found footage fiction pieces such as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield.

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