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Hardcore Henry shows the limits of movies that feel like video games

Hardcore Henry is less a movie you watch and more of a big-screen simulation you experience. The film, shot entirely in fish-eyed first person, with arms and legs flailing below, forces moviegoers into its perspective and then batters them through a mess of frantic action sequences. On a big screen, the effect is literally dizzying: It’s like watching a feature-length, large-format video game controlled by someone else.

That’s not an accident. The story and visuals borrow unapologetically from the tropes of gaming, and director Ilya Naishuller sometimes seems more concerned with making the movie feel like a game than a movie. It’s the latest and most obvious sign of the shrinking divide between movies and video games — one that bodes better for video games than for movies.

Almost everything about Hardcore Henry mimics a video game in some way

Just about every element of Hardcore Henry somehow links back to the world of video games, right down to the story structure.

In the opening scene, the protagonist, Henry, wakes up in a science fiction lab and is introduced to his body, complete with various enhancements that give him unusual strength and durability. As is often the case in video games, he’s essentially a blank: He has no memories and no voice, no self except his name. The sequence acts as a tutorial, explaining the basics of the character’s movement and capabilities to the audience.

From there, Hardcore Henry proceeds through a series of action scenes that function like video game levels. There’s an escape sequence, a shootout in a parking lot, then another in an apartment building crawling with disposable bad guys, several car and foot chases, an encounter with a tank, a sniper session, and even the requisite final boss fight at the very end of the film, which Henry completes with the aid of adrenaline injections that serve as literal power-ups.

Many of these levels revolve around shootouts, but several of them are designed as first-person platformers, where Henry's objective is to traverse a series of obstacles by leaping, running, and climbing. They’re structured around movement and motion, and they recall games like Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed.

Between levels, Henry receives information and instructions from Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who plays a sort of guide character that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played games like Bioshock or Call of Duty. His purpose is to provide Henry with assignments and explain the various missions; he even gives Henry a mobile phone that contains a digital map marked with video game–style waypoints.

Jimmy also serves as the source of many of Henry’s weapons, from pliers to pistols to shotguns; like so many first-person shooters, Hardcore Henry is structured largely as a progression through a series of weapons.

Even Jimmy’s frequent appearances reflect a video game mentality. He dies repeatedly in the film but always appears again, each time in a different comic guise — the secret agent, the hippie weirdo, the camouflage-covered marksman, the gung-ho military commander — like a video game character who keeps dying and coming back to life.

The film's unique use of the first-person perspective essentially makes it a video game masquerading as a movie

Hardcore Henry is far from the first movie to use extended first-person shots. As Sonny Bunch writes at the Washington Free Beacon, the device has a long cinematic history, from the virtual reality sequences in Strange Days to the found footage in Cloverfield. It’s not even the first video game movie to employ the gimmick: Doom, a muddled adaptation of the influential video game franchise, featured a four-minute first-person sequence designed to mimic the look and feel of playing the game.

The technique isn't limited to a certain genre, either. It also appears in prestige films from top-tier directors: David Fincher’s Zodiac opens with an extended first-person shot. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas introduces much of its supporting cast in a first-person tracking shot.

But even aside from Hardcore Henry’s total adoption of the first-person point of view, there’s a big difference between how other films have used it and how Henry uses it. In those other movies, the first person is designed to put the viewer in someone else’s perspective — to reveal the experience of a character in the story and present how that person sees the world.

In Henry, it’s designed to make the movie’s perspective indistinguishable from the viewer’s. Yes, everything that happens in the movie is happening to some person named Henry. But he’s not really a person or a character like you might find in a traditional film. As in so many video games, he’s such an empty cipher that you end up imprinting yourself on the experience as you see things through his eyes.

The movie effectively makes you the main character. Instead of watching what happens to other people, you’re experiencing what is happening to you, as if in a game, but without a controller.

Movies, TV shows, and video games are all starting to look more and more like each other

But the movie/video games influence loop doesn’t only go one way. Just as Henry is essentially a game masquerading as a movie, a video game like Quantum Break, which hit stores last week, is essentially a TV show dressed up as a video game. The time travel–themed game was designed from the outset to be a kind of hybrid experience, where gameplay would change the story in a series of TV-length narrative episodes and those episodes would, in turn, change how the game is played.

Some parts of Quantum Break operate like a traditional third-person action game. But those sections are broken up by 22-minute story sequences, presented in full motion video and starring recognizable performers like Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Lance Reddick (The Wire), that are compiled on the fly based on choices made by the player. It’s a TV show. It’s a video game. It’s both. It’s neither.

Quantum Break may be the most explicit example of games borrowing from film, but it’s hardly the first: The story-heavy releases from Telltale Games, which expand the stories and worlds of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, are fundamentally narrative experiences with some elements of choice. Games like The Last of Us and the Uncharted series from developer Naughty Dog are structured around cinematic cut scenes with stories, characters, and dialogue that are as rich as anything you’ll ever see in a Hollywood blockbuster — and, indeed, far more developed than the paper-thin story in Hardcore Henry. As the Grand Theft Auto franchise has developed over the years, it’s become grandly cinematic, with sprawling storylines and characters drawn from crime and gangster movies.

This is one reason why video game live-streaming through platforms like Twitch has become such a popular activity: As more games have become more cinematic, they’ve become more interesting to simply watch as someone else plays.

That’s a lot of what Hardcore Henry is tapping into. Just think of it as a big-screen riff on tuning in to a Twitch stream of some unreleased first-person shooter.

Once the novelty wears off, movies that feel like video games face a crucial obstacle

Hardcore Henry shows that film is learning from video games just as video games are learning from film. But it also reveals that both mediums have not achieved the same level of advancement in terms of one borrowing elements from the other.

Video games feel like they’re getting smarter about storytelling, and expanding their horizons as they experiment with more cinematic approaches. Game/video hybrids like Quantum Break make it clear that the medium still has a lot of room to grow and innovate.

Hardcore Henry boasts a certain vulgar wit, and it makes for a clever enough extended cinematic gimmick; it’s basically a feature-length exploration of the ideas in the director’s "Bad Motherfuckers" music video for his Russian punk band, Biting Elbows.

But ultimately it’s not much of a movie, and it’s certainly not an idea that could be replicated or extended to much success. Even at a relatively short 96 minutes, it nearly overstays its welcome. Plus, it relies on some of the less pleasant aspects of video game culture — the casual misogyny and mindless ultraviolence that have often defined the medium.

At best, then, Hardcore Henry feels like an homage to a younger, fresher medium; at worst, it feels like a crude regression. What it certainly doesn’t feel like is the future.

And in a sense, the movie’s overreliance on elements lifted from the world of video games undermines the movie’s case for itself: Sure, it’s an interesting experiment, but too often it just raises the question of why it’s a movie and not a game. If movies are going to become more game-like, then it’s reasonable to ask why it wouldn’t be better to just stay home and actually play a game.