A few years ago a Russian indie rock band called Biting Elbows gained worldwide attention when they released a violent and effects-heavy music video with a first person perspective, directed by the band’s frontman Ilya Naishuller. Now Mr. Naishuller has gone on to direct a feature film in the same vain as that video, and with it, he manages to be both ahead of his time, and heavily rooted in decades-old conventions and ideas.
Hardcore Henry boasts its kinship to video games with unadulterated pride; a flurry of heavily directed action-sequences from any first person action/adventure game where story and characters are put aside for pure adrenaline and violence. The trailers tells you all you need to know, and all you really will know when the credits roll. It is a movie wholly dedicated to its form; fast-paced action, thrilling parkour, blood and guts, sex, drugs and rock & roll, and of course a villain whose motivations and powers are as unexplored and meaningless as any villains from most first person shooters. As a result of this Hardcore Henry becomes a very niche movie; as your enjoyment of it will hinge entirely on how much you appreciate mindless action, and whether or not you can turn a blind eye to some of its issues. I could not, but it is a movie that manages to achieve exactly what it sets out to do, so it’s difficult to really criticise.
The reason I’m personally interested in talking more about Hardcore Henry is because it fits into the narrative of technological advancement in 2016, where the idea of virtual reality in video games (and digital media in general) is no longer stuck at our doorsills, but slowly creeping its way into our daily lives. In many ways, the movie feels like the epitome of this advancement’s goals – a piece of digital media so devoted to immersion it practically screams for VR-goggles. Hardcore Henry feels like the embodiment of this entire technological revolution. In this sense, it feels ahead of its time by a year or so (perhaps just months), because, while it is impossible to predict the future of first person/VR experiences, I do not think it is unrealistic to expect to see more of it in cinema in the future – whether one wants it or not is an entirely different matter.
Based on preview-builds and early reviews of the first batch of virtual reality video games, it is possible to see a pattern in their intent; a heavy focus on immersive and engrossing experiences; the consequence of every breath, and the very possibility of an endless slide into the blackness in Adr1ft; or the vertigo-inducing heights of the skyscrapers in a zombie-infested Dying Light. Hardcore Henry places itself neatly inline with games like these, where the parkour feels like a compilation video on YouTube, and the punch-outs makes you disorientated and tired. A most obvious parallel is of course Mirror’s Edge, on crack. The beautiful minimalism of Mirror’s Edge‘s futuristic cityscape exchanged for the post-industrial architecture of a fictitious Russia. I can go on-and-on about Hardcore Henry‘s roots and apparent influences in video games, but the most acute description applicable would be to say it takes it all – good and bad, fun and bland, innovative and old.
Hardcore Henry may be ahead of its time – an indication of the future to come – and while it’s filled with potential and possibilities for new experiences, the end result in this case is no more than a novelty. Its utter devotion to every facet of its inspiration brings with it too much baggage, too many decades-old conventions in its narrative, characters and more, and in the end, if Hardcore Henry is a signal of what’s to come with this technological revolution, I’m not so sure it’s one I look forward to.