This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK and contains very mild spoilers for Hardcore Henry, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and 10 Cloverfield Lane.
For a while now,”it’s like watching somebody else play a video game” has been a nifty shorthand for film critics. Even though the popularity of playthrough videos, from YouTube to dedicated networks like Twitch, means that a lot of us might now be watching other people play the video games, we understand the implication whether we agree with it or not.
It’s the same reason why there has arguably never been a great movie based directly on a video game, as these tend to transplant story and character elements into a big screen medium at the expense of the personal player experience, whereby you can actually inhabit and control a character. But in the last couple of decades, at the same time as technology has brought about superior graphics, the storytelling has become more diverse and sophisticated too.
In the forefront of the discussion, AAA gaming has its Michael Bay blockbusters (the Call Of Duty franchise) and its HBO boxset, (The Last Of Us) but whatever your preference, there’s a greater capacity to design and tell stories than in years gone by. But if game storytelling has caught up with television and cinema, has there been an exchange of values and influences?
In the week following Hardcore Henry hitting cinemas, the answer is a resounding “uhh, kinda.” Ilya Naishuller’s relentless actioner picks up where his acclaimed music video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker” left off, by taking place entirely from the title character’s perspective. It’s not the first film to deploy this gimmick – most recently, the 2012 remake of Maniac was filmed entirely from a murderer’s point of view, but Hardcore Henry is clearly the first feature to mimic the sensory blitz of playing a first person shooter for an hour and a half straight.
It’s not overtly a video game put up on a big screen, except for when it is. The story moves with Henry, a cybernetically enhanced soldier, as he goes on a bloody rampage made up of objective-driven setpieces in pursuit of his kidnapped scientist wife, Estelle, fighting countless goons and their telekinetic boss with the help of various non-player characters (NPCs) who all look just like Sharlto Copley.
It’s not just reminiscent of gaming in form, but in story structure, and it’s at least self-aware enough to have a bit of subtext about the disorientation of a character onto whom the viewer (or player) projects themselves. For the most part, it’s trashy, trouble-making fare, but without spoiling anything, there are a couple of unexpected twists late in the story, which serve to cast a more satirical light on the feeble character building. This isn’t us giving it the benefit of the doubt in terms of its regressive representation elsewhere, but the subtext is apparent.
This is embodied in Copley’s Jimmy, who dies within five minutes of his first appearance, only to come back minutes later with a different personality, allowing the star’s berserk versatility to shine through. The in-story reason for this enjoyable acting showcase comes later in the story, but the meaning is apparent – Jimmy’s ability to respawn makes the likeness to the more brainless variety of first person shooters as explicit as can be, which allows for suitably visceral spins on boss battles and power-ups later on.
The film seems to aspire to the insane, kinetic perspective of Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who also satirised the form and popularity of FPS games in 2009’s Gamer. Naishuller even echoes the use of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from that film at one point, but although one film is less blatant in its satire than the other, it remains that both are replicating the story structure of games, rather than the form. As we know, there’s no shortage of games that pilfer plots and story devices from films, but it goes both ways.
Perhaps even in the screen next door to Hardcore Henry, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice features an entire tangential nightmare sequence in which the characterisation and motivation of Superman is straight out of the 2013 game Injustice: Gods Among Us. We’re honestly still unclear as to whether or not this is meant to come back in a future DC film, but the dystopian ‘Knightmare’ seems to reference the events that lead into the Mortal Kombat-esque fighting game.
Later in the film, there’s also a great third act fight scene in between Batman and a couple of dozen armed mercenaries. The fluid choreography brings the character’s comic book physicality to the big screen for the first time, in a way which is clearly influenced by the fighting style seen in Rocksteady’s acclaimed Arkham games. This is one example of how the influence of visual language in games can be seen in recent cinema.
Another versus movie that does this is Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a more obvious forerunner that piles video game tropes on top of Wright’s signature pop culture references and musical needle drops, as well as romantic comedy and action tropes, in a film that was adapted from a comic book (phew). It’s a bombardment of different styles that continues to reward repeat viewings, but its touchstones are classic 8 to 16-bit games and as creative and artistic as Wright’s film is, we’re starting to see the influence of later, more sophisticated visual styles.
To pick another multiplex friendly example, 10 Cloverfield Lane comes from Dan Trachtenberg, who previously directed the short film Portal: No Escape. Over the course of the film, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is trapped in a single setting and has to collect items and use them in such a way that becomes reminiscent of puzzle solving games and owes something to Trachtenberg’s previous work and his tastes as a gameplayer.
On a more prestigious scale, the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Son Of Saul, is due in UK cinemas in a few weeks. The film is shot almost entirely over the shoulder of its protagonist Saul, a Sonderkommando member at Auschwitz who embarks on a personal mission to give a dead child a proper Jewish burial. It’s an audacious way to shoot a film about the Holocaust, enveloping viewers in the horror of a concentration camp from the third person perspective.
Third person games have gone through a particular growth in recent years as a result of improved graphics, combining elements of FPS games and platformers in a wider environment. Though not as immersive as the first person, the third person retains the personal perspective while also putting your avatar in plain sight – it could be likened to playing a film. Going back to the inverse of that, and the adage with which we began, it’s unlikely that any critic would say that the staggeringly powerful Son Of Saul is like watching someone else play a video game.
Also getting acclaim in the arthouse realm is Victoria, a film that was captured in a single 138 minute take in April 2014. Like Hardcore Henry, we’re with the title character for the duration, only Victoria starts in an underground nightclub in Berlin and is whisked away on a romantic and dangerous journey with a young man called Sonne and his friends. Also like Henry, it’s not the first film to experiment with its gimmick, although it doesn’t have to disguise the stitches between its tracking shots as earlier films like Rope or last year’s Birdman, because it really is one shot.
Aside from the real time story, the film seems like it all takes place within a few blocks, perhaps by technical necessity, but this also evokes the sandbox environments that have come with improved capacity in games. Victoria’s journey is choreographed magnificently, but the lack of cuts makes her journey feel exploratory, getting into cars (meaning that cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen takes the camera into the back seat, sat between the actors), climbing up to rooftops, and wandering through deserted streets in the early morning.
While cinema has long evolved past the need for a “Sonne will remember this” caption whenever there’s a pivotal plot point, it’s a film that’s driven by Victoria’s decisions (specifically her bad ones) throughout its propulsive running time, in the same way as episodic interactive dramas like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, although these in turn are designed to mimic a television narrative to some extent. Some critics feel that her actions stretch credulity, but it’s inarguably more dramatic in its proper context and it lends a palpable air of danger throughout the film.
It may be tenuous to compare Hardcore Henry and Victoria beyond their ingenious uses of subtitles – as you’d expect, Henry does it for a gag about people talking over each other, while Victoria uses it to dazzling expository effect because the title character doesn’t speak German like her companions. However, both involve getting up close and personal with a character who is ostensibly driven by personal motivation but also follows the instructions of characters (or NPCs) around her. Moreover, it’s no bad thing to say that, whether intentionally or not, their respective styles are reminiscent of the immersive experience that comes from gaming.
On the aforementioned scale of Bay to HBO, Hardcore Henry is the big, dumb shooter, as overtly influenced by games as any film since Scott Pilgrim and even more comfortable being ridiculous, while Victoria is a developed and more emotionally rewarding experience that allows you a window into a character’s head as they explore a new environment. The latter is unquestionably better than the former and they’re worlds apart in tone, but they’re not completely different from one another either.
Overall, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the visual language of games will soon come to have as much of an impact on up-and-coming film directors as cinema does. Justin Kurzel’s take on Assassin’s Creed will be in cinemas this Christmas, they’re looking at rebooting Tomb Raider with Daisy Ridley, and it’s safe to say that we won’t be short of films based on video game properties.
But more intriguingly, we’ll soon be looking at the first generation of directors who have grown up with PlayStation 2 and Xbox games, many of which have demonstrated cinematic qualities as a result of technological advances. In the last 15 years, the medium has come into with a new self awareness that has been far more frequently exercised in film, with indie developers emerging in just the same way as cinema became more accessible to new voices over time.
With an increased push towards the home viewing experience in movies and interactivity in media, it will be interesting to see how the cinema of tomorrow is influenced by gaming perspectives.