In 1947, Robert Montgomery had an idea to adapt the Raymond Chandler novel The Lady in the Lake as a feature film, but with a bit of a wrinkle. Montgomery chose to shoot the film from the perspective of the main character, detective Phillip Marlowe. MGM pulled no punches in their promotion of the film, calling it a “revolutionary motion picture” and “the most amazing since Talkies began.” A poster for the film read “You and Robert Montgomery solve a murder mystery together!” However, despite solid box office success, “Lady in the Lake” wasn’t too well received critically, nor did it usher in a future filled with first person perspective films.
There is a difference between watching and seeing. When we go to the movies, we are primarily watching. We are watching characters interact with one another, in a setting, and a story unfolds in front of us. Every now and then, the camera shows us the point of view of the character. But rarely do we stay in that point of view for an extended period of time. Eventually the camera snaps back to place us in the middle of the narrative, and we go back to watching.
“Hardcore Henry”, the action film written and directed by Ilya Naishuller, picks up where “Lady in the Lake” left off. The new film tells the story of Henry, a cyborg who escapes from and fights against the mercenaries of an eccentric Bond villain-adjacent, world domination-seeking tyrant named Akan. If this sounds a bit like the premise of a video game, you’re not far off. “Hardcore Henry”, like “Lady in the Lake”, is shot completely in the first person point of view of the titular character. The film’s other characters, when addressing Henry, speak directly into the camera. When Henry ducks, dives, runs, shoots, we duck, dive, run, and shoot, too. When Henry stumbles into a brothel…well, we still only see what Henry does. Shot on Go Pros affixed to various stuntmen, “Hardcore Henry” is an ambitious, original, innovative take on the modern action movie. It’s almost, but not quite, virtual reality for the big screen.
Unfortunately, it’s not a very good film. It never strays too far from its seemingly video game-inspired roots. “Hardcore Henry” is not a film interested in anything resembling character development—short scenes bookending the film involving Henry’s father, portrayed by Tim Roth, aside—and the dialog sounds like what you might find in the scenes in between missions of a first person shooter.
What the film seems most interested in is having the viewer experience very violent things from a first person perspective. And this point of view choice seems particularly meaningful given the future of visual storytelling. Virtual reality is coming. Oculus Rift is finally available for public pre-order. We do not yet know if this first iteration of VR, or any future one therein, will permanently change the way we take in stories. While some very good films are still being released in 3D, the novelty has certainly worn off a bit. A film cannot do well solely because it is in 3D. And the boardroom dreams of 3D adoption in the living room has been, to put it kindly, a bust.
It may seem as though “Hardcore Henry” will be ahead of its time. With VR right on the horizon, isn’t first person point of view the future of narrative storytelling? Perhaps. But perhaps not.
“Lady in the Lake” also inspired talk of the future of storytelling, and whether or not the first person point of view was a viable narrative storytelling tool. In 1953, Julio L. Moreno published the essay “Subjective Cinema And the Problem of Film in the First Person“, where he wrote at length about the shortcomings of the narrative of “Lady in the Lake” and in first person point of view film on a whole. He spoke of the “subjectivization of the camera”, the attempt to bring the audience inside the character. But according to Moreno, this tactic actually takes away from the internal experience, rendering what is presented to the audience as abstract. By trying to bring the audience inside the story’s main character, to make the audience feel as though they were actually involved, “Lady in the Lake” actually made any personal identification, and in fact any character identification, impossible. “The spectator has to put up with a phantom-protagonist,” Moreno wrote. “The spectator must infer him continually from the conduct of the other characters.”
We indeed can become immersed in the action when playing a first person shooter video game. But how much of that is because we’re the ones controlling where the character goes, and what he or she sees and does? Virtual reality comes with the promise of a similar immersion, but that will also depend on the content of the experience. Gaming is a natural first step for VR, but surely attempts at narrative storytelling will follow. And these are two distinct types of storytelling. One can predict that the first forms of narrative VR storytelling might suffer from many of the same faults as “Hardcore Henry”.
In the film, it is impossible for the audience to identify with Henry, partly because they know nothing about him and have no idea how he feels about anything. Mostly, though, the problem is that the audience isn’t in control of Henry. The film, and this first person point of view technique, has severe limitations in terms of true audience immersion unless the first person in question also has agency.
“First person” is actually a curious choice to describe the technique. “Character point of view” would be more appropriate, because “Hardcore Henry” and “Lady in the Lake” alike are more second person than first person. The audience is being told what they are seeing and experiencing. After all, the poster for “Lady in the Lake” uses the second person form: You solve a crime.
Truly immersive first person point of view narrative storytelling through VR may prove to be popular. But just as a video game and a film are totally different storytelling vehicles, so too will films and first person VR narratives. Even if VR reaches a point where it is fully immersive—where users are able to make decisions in a narrative setting, and see and feel the consequences of those decisions—there will likely still exist films as we know them today. The distinction may very well be less about the camera angle and more about who gets to make the choices.
Perhaps there will be more experimentation in Hollywood with first person point of view, but just as “Lady in the Lake” didn’t result in an era of all-point of view filmmaking, “Hardcore Henry” won’t either. Part of that is because “Hardcore Henry” isn’t a good film. But it’s also because watching something remains different than seeing something.