Breathe in. Don't look up.
With my eyes closed, while gulping down as much oxygen as I could, I did some mental math, calculating the number of steps to the bathroom, how much time I'd need to execute those steps, and how many people I'd have to crawl over to get to the aisle and exit of the movie theater. I was sweating through my T-shirt and experiencing a mild wave of nausea; there was an uneasy feeling in the space below my chest.
I soon came to a realization: I was not hardcore enough for Hardcore Henry, the first-person shooter film directed by Ilya Naishuller, who shares writing credits with screenwriter Will Stewart.
Shot almost entirely on GoPro cameras — the same ones that people strap onto dogs, weather balloons, kayaks, surfboards — Naishuller has created a movie that resembles video games like Call of Duty or Doom, but with the super soldier spirit of the Jason Bourne film franchise. The audience is placed in the head of Henry, a bionic man with no memory, no voice, and no idea that he's the only thing stopping a telekinetic villain named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) from achieving world domination and killing Henry's beautiful wife (Haley Bennett). Along the way, an irreverent, pervy guide named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) appears to assign missions for Henry to complete.
The story isn't all that innovative, but it's wrapped around an amazing stunt: Thanks to those GoPros, we only see what Henry sees.
Henry nods, and the camera pivots up and down. Henry gets punched in the face, and the camera spasms and whips backward. Henry looks at his feet, and the camera swivels along with him. Henry is shot at, and we turn around with him to see where the bullets are coming from.
This forced perspective is business as usual for first-person video games but brand new to film. And it adds a new dimension to fight scenes, transforming them into immersive, heart-thumping tornadoes.
Compared with flashy, blockbuster behemoths like Star Wars, Marvel's Avengers franchise, Star Trek, and Batman v Superman, Hardcore Henry stands out because it feels like a fresh, unpredictable experiment that's in constant, jarring motion, rather than a sleek demonstration of what fight scenes and special effects can do.
Hardcore Henry also made me want to barf.
The movie's point-of-view gimmick is great
Hardcore Henry is essentially a DIY video of a grown man playing out the jittery, frenetic fantasies of an overcaffeinated, testosterone-driven, teenage boy who hasn't fondled himself in three days.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
When you buy a ticket to movie with the word "hardcore" in its title, there's an implicit understanding that you're not here to see Carol. You're here to see imaginative violence. You're here to see perfect boobs. You're here to see characters who cuss like crazy. You're here to see all three of these things coexist in a scene, possibly set in a whorehouse.
Hardcore Henry makes no apologies. What you see is what you get.
The female characters, even when they're scientists, are barely clothed. There's always a hint of lust in their eyes. The fight scenes are bloody, ugly orgies of violence. People's heads explode. Villains are pulverized into meat sacks. And, yes, the film even delivers a fight scene in a brothel.
But even better than all of those things is Hardcore Henry's first-person filming gimmick.
The film's real beauty is in its choreography; it may seem like a slapdash jumble of spontaneity, but there's plenty of thought behind the madness and how each sequence is constructed.
In blockbuster fight scenes, directors tell a story through camerawork: wide angles to show off the laser beams and explosions, close-ups to show the intricacy of the punches, slow-motion interludes to emphasize the gravity of a punch. There's none of that in Hardcore Henry.
Because he can't rely on zooms and pans and can't slow down the action, Naishuller has to resort to other ways to draw out the shock and awe of an action sequence. He mixes in the idea of gravity in a chase scene that leaves Henry — and us — hanging on for dear life. He leans into the unpredictability of hearing, but not seeing, a bullet whiz by in real time. There are plenty of scenes where your brain isn't fully computing the jagged stuff you're seeing on screen because everything is happening in a blink of the eye.
Naishuller has created a film that doubles as an experience, and he makes no effort to coddle you if you can't keep up.
Hardcore Henry made me feel physically ill
Hardcore Henry's shaky-cam, first-person perspective gave me motion sickness. I made it about two-thirds of the way through the movie, then had to tap out for a good five to eight minutes. I left my seat, went into the hallway, and tried to get my bearings.
As a point of reference, I didn't experience any motion sickness during The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. In fact, I haven't experienced nausea caused by a piece of media since I played Goldeneye on my Nintendo 64. But Hardcore Henry did me in — and during my screening of the movie, I wasn't the only one to get up and leave the theater.
Naishuller has claimed that Hardcore Henry probably won't make people sick, though he's implied he wouldn't be surprised if people walked out of the movie due to its violence.
"Hardcore Henry is way smoother of a ride than one would expect," he wrote during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session last month. "Put it this way, out of 1200 people ... at the premiere, 12 or 13 people walked out, and I'm guessing that some weren't too fond of the violence, I could live with that."
I would beg to differ — the violence and sex didn't affect me the way the jarring, bobbing first-person perspective did.
And as I waited for my nausea to subside, I began to appreciate the dastardly marketing plan built into Hardcore Henry: It's essentially a dare to see if audiences can finish the whole thing without throwing up. I ended up returning to the theater and finishing the movie — though I watched some of it from the aisle instead of my seat. There was more than enough going on to keep me coming back for more.
Ultimately, Hardcore Henry is a tricky balancing act: Is there enough dazzle in its gimmick to outweigh the lack of innovation in its plot and the shallowness of its characters? Its aesthetics — the overabundance and reliance on tits and violence — aren't for everyone. But the effort behind its technique is unquestionable. And there are times when Hardcore Henry feels like the beginning of a brand new genre of action movie. Though to be fair, I won't blame you if the sound of such a genre makes you want to barf.