Hardcore Henry and the Post-Cinematic Camera-Eye

Cinema has been obsessed with movement and vision ever since its inception. Whether we think of Tom Gunning’s argument about a “cinema of attractions” and an “aesthetics of astonishment” or Dziga Vertov’s kino-eye, look and movement have always been tightly integrated. Cinema desires looking at movement but it also desires to move those that look.1

The relationship between camera and eye has been central to cinema and film theory in equal measure and has mostly been regarded as prosthetic: we are able to see more, see better, see differently because of the camera-eye. Camera technology reveals realms that were not accessible before, thus producing both an unconscious optics and a changed relation to the world around us. However, I wish to argue that the camera-eye is not a prosthetic relation; it does not make up for an essential lack or serve as a supplement to our own vision. Instead, the camera-eye should be regarded as creative, a mode of production that is expansive and transformative. The camera-eye is not a compensation but a folding: it adds rather than makes up for.

This changed relation between us and the camera is not static; it did not emerge fully formed with the kinematograph or later technological advances. The camera-eye is constantly updated as new visual technologies emerge and integrate into cinema. More and more visual territory is claimed, added, and integrated by new visual technologies. New technological affordances offer new aesthetic experiences and help usher in new regimes of vision.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller 2015), an (almost) entirely first-person POV action film in which GoPro shots were morphed together to produce a continuous POV experience. The story is about Henry brought back from the dead as a cyborg by his wife Estelle and a group of scientists. The maniacal Akan shows up, claiming the research that Estelle has done as his intellectual property, including Henry. Henry and Estelle escape and for most of the film Henry tries to survive, figure out what Akan wants with him, and save Estelle. A peculiar character called Jimmy keeps showing up in different forms in order to help Henry. At the end we learn that Estelle is Akan’s wife and they have conspired to produce better cyborg soldiers.

Hardcore Henry is part of a shift away from a scopic regime of vision to what has variously been termed a haptic regime (Marks, Skin of the Film), an affective regime (Shaviro, “‘Straight From the Cerebral Cortex’”), or a tactile regime (Barker, Tactile Eye). In this transformation, the centrality of the spectator’s body is emphasized. Movies touch and affect us. Or we might say that movies move us. I will call this new regime animated vision which emerges from the new post-cinematic camera eye that can be found distributed across new technologies, reinvigorating cinematic forms, and producing new intensities of the image.

Camera-eye and GoPro

The movie camera has usually been associated with human movement, attention, position and so forth — providing embodied identification and a sense of “being in the movie.” Edward Branigan calls this anthropomorphizing the camera and goes on to show how strongly the camera is associated with the subjective experience of characters, and how that experience may radiate outwards to us (Projecting 37). In Hardcore Henry there is only a continuous, subjective point-of-view shot that on the one hand appears to be exactly like human vision. But of course, the camera, no matter how anthropomorphized, cannot reproduce our embodied being in the world, a problem that was faced much earlier with The Lady in the Lake.

The problem with Hardcore Henry, then, is the paradoxical fact that the movie’s continuous subjective point-of-view shot produced by strapping GoPros to a rig worn by a stuntman looks and feels nothing like how we ourselves see the world: the camera whip pans never correlate with our embodied vison. The markers that put us in the movie also estrange us from the experience of watching it. Yet, perhaps today we are more willing to accept this form of camera-eye; not as an anthropomorphic substitute, but as a new, innervating way of seeing the world.

This is why considering the camera-eye as a prosthetic relation is insufficient. Cameras do not simply extend and expand what we can see (though they do that, of course). No, the camera “fundamentally changes the function of seeing altogether” as Christian Quendler has argued (“Rethinking” 403). This is where Branigan’s argument about anthropomorphizing the camera reaches a limit. Not only do we anthropomorphize the camera but because we are so used to this operation, it can also be reversed: we become camerafied. Whenever we encounter new visual technologies, our embodied relation to the world is broadened, which at first feels estranging.

Although he never pursues the argument, Gunning’s outline of a cinema of attraction and an aesthetics of astonishment suggests quite clearly that there is an affective habituation to the attraction and astonishment of early cinema. Early audiences were fascinated with this radical new technology that expanded and revised human vision, and much as they craved spectacular sequences to be astonished, so too do we today. GoPro cameras serve as a new form of attraction producing new forms of astonishment.

GoPros are small digital cameras expressly designed for action shots, particularly extreme sports and other stunt-like activities. For Hardcore Henry a special rig was designed that became known as the “Adventure Mask.” The rig fits around the stunt performer’s head and a set of magnets keep the camera in place in front of his mouth. Since the GoPro has no viewfinder, they were in a sense shooting blind with a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the stunt performer’s body as possible. This same reasoning was why the camera was placed at mouth level, since that allowed for the optimal angle of view.

The designers, cinematographer, and director all speak of achieving presence via the camera, suggesting quite specifically a sense of immersion, an anthropomorphized camera, and a sense of astonishment. The camera becomes a stand-in for the spectator’s body, not just the performer’s. Supposedly, the camera is meant to vanish and give unmediated access to the movie experience. The videogame genre of first-person shooter is also typically referenced as a precursor as well as an ideal for the movie. Interestingly, the first-person shooter is also seen as providing an experience of presence and immersion.2

However, this experience of presence is just as often disrupted because of the limitations of the GoPros and the subjective POV shots. The movie opens on a conventional medium shot that cuts to a medium close-up of a toy being smashed against a wall. Then we get what is most likely the first subjective POV shot of Henry’s father addressing Henry directly. After the opening credits we are in the present and Henry is being assembled by his wife, with everything shot in subjective POV from here on out. Once Henry has been assembled and they’re in the process of installing his voice module, Akan and his goons show up.

As the inevitable fight breaks out, we experience the constraints of the subjective POV shots, in addition to the limitations of the GoPros. Estelle sets off a loud boom of music and in that moment, the shot time ramps down into slow-motion, before Estelle and Henry run away. As Henry looks around, the shot whip pans quickly, too quickly. It becomes difficult for us to keep up with what is happening and we lose spatial orientation, as there is no establishing shot to provide spatial order. Henry runs after Estelle but constantly looks around, disrupting clear cinematic space. His head movements become whip pans that are at odds with our embodied being in the world.

When shooting with GoPros there is a constant trade-off between resolution and frame rate and as a result, the image drags and blurs when Henry moves his head too quickly. In addition, to suggest Henry’s cyborg nature, glitches occur in our field of vision: visual color static and pixelation disrupt the image, further estranging us from the image. Also, Henry’s arms enter the frame, which further disrupts an immersive, presence-based experience, since we know that our arms are not there in the frame. In addition, due to the placement of the GoPro over the stunt performer’s mouth, the arms and hands are always at an odd angle compared to where our own arms would be.

Of course, we can think about this play of presence in a slightly different way. What is present is the medium itself, the fact that we are watching a movie with a particular organization of its images. While this mediatic presence disrupts realism, it does not disrupt fascination but actually engrosses us further in the movie. We cannot help but notice the discrepancy between our own embodiment and the image’s embodiment. There is no way that we would ever experience the world in such a way. However, instead of considering this fact a fatal flaw, we can think of it as hypermediated fascination. Scott Bukatman has argued for a kaleidoscopic perception of kinesis and immersion that is necessarily contingent on new visual technologies (Matters of Gravity, 114). What we are fascinated with is not unmediated reality but the presence of the medium, what Bolter and Grusin have termed hypermediacy (Remediation 31).

Consider when Henry, a little later during his escape, is shot with a Taser and falls off a highway bridge. We see both Henry’s body and feel the delirium of the fall. Much like the GoPro action videos genre we do get a sense of what falling off a highway bridge might be, but at the same time also feel the heavily mediated nature of this experience. The same is the case when Henry shakes his head no: that looks and feels nothing like when we shake our own heads, although there is a residual sensation of what it is like doing so in a first-person shooter game.

These scenes and the rest of the movie oscillate between immediacy and hypermediacy. While the continuous subjective POV shots put us right into the diegesis of the movie, providing hectic scenes that at times feel claustrophobic, their unusual nature also inevitably draws attention to their mediated status. As Bolter and Grusin have argued this is exactly what most media do, particularly when they are new. And while cinema is not new, GoPro cameras are new in the context of filmmaking. The attraction of immediacy and the astonishment of hypermediacy are thus clearly evident in Hardcore Henry.
We are now closer to understanding why the post-cinematic camera-eye is not a prosthetic relation. The camera does not “make up for” something that is somehow deficient in our vision. In Hardcore Henry there is no lack supplemented by the camera. Instead, we are drawn to the post-cinematic body of the movie because it offers new ways of seeing, new sensations.

What should be the most anthropomorphic camera relation imaginable has shown itself to be rather non-anthropomorphic, due to the ways the GoPros reveal the limits of the camera’s vision versus human vision. Instead, Hardcore Henry instantiates a new kind of machine vision. Non-anthropomorphic models of the camera should be understood to indicate that we are in the process of folding in new forms of perception into human vision, broadening our ways of seeing.

Subjective POV

I want to push this idea of machinic vision and new ways of seeing even further, in two directions. The first is the subjective point of view, while the second is the continuous single-take appearance of the movie. The idea here is to get a sense of how Hardcore Henry moves away from conventional embodiment and affords us a new kind of non-anthropomorphic vision.

We feel innervation and agitation, not fear or alienation. We can suggest that in Hardcore Henry the subjective POV shots effect innervation.3 Such innervation comes not from a sense of pure presence and immersion but rather from the constant oscillation between immediacy and hypermediacy of the GoPros.

This brings us to the continuous nature of Hardcore Henry. While people constantly suggest that the movie is a continuous shot, there are in fact plenty of cuts. At times the cuts are simply there to compress time, like in any other movie. Watching Henry travel longer distances is boring and so left out. At other times the cuts are minimal and often masked. Yet the movie is generally kept in real-time and there is a sense of this being a continuous experience in a way that is different from conventional storytelling.

Cinematic realism has often been associated with technological reproduction and the long take. However, although there are long takes in Hardcore Henry surely they do not work according to Bazin’s logic of the long take.4 Instead, the realism that we find in Hardcore Henry is not visual but corporeal. This corporeal realism is tied to the notion of kinetic perception and movement, which is what Gunning argues for in his article “Moving Away from the Index.” The innervated and innervating camera movements act on us bodily more than they do visually. Visually disrupting, the movie is bodily engaging: it’s fun watching this movie and its unusual form.

We can say that Hardcore Henry attempts to reproduce movement in us. The movie does not try to “make things look right” or photorealistic but instead to make us feel, to have a physical impact on our bodies. Shots like the one at the end, where Henry jumps from one floating body to another to get to Akan are ludicrous in their conception but the apprehension we feel while watching Henry’s precarious jumps is exhilarating. Because we never get establishing shots, because we never experience Henry’s exploits from the outside, our only option is to experience them vicariously. Hardcore Henry is all about movement and the energies that we get from that cinematic movement. For this reason, the camera-eye becomes a camera-body and we should think more about the vision produced by the film as an animated and animating vision.

Animated Vision: From Scopic Regime to Modulation

With the introduction of new visual technologies it is hardly surprising that film scholars have turned to new models for understanding our relation to cinema. Although quite different in temperament and argument, film theorists as diverse as Laura Marks, Steven Shaviro, and Jennifer Barker have all argued for increased attention to the bodily production of the film viewer/spectator/observer.

Taken together, these different terms all wish to move away from the conventional understanding of modernity’s scopic regime (also outlined by Crary) as one that depends on a panoptic gaze, where vision is a technique of control that is both external and internal. Perhaps the best model for contemporary society (network society, neoliberalism, postcapitalism, whatever we wish to call it) is no longer one of looking, odd as this may sound.

Hardcore Henry signals a change away from the scopic regime because it is not based on visual reproduction but instead on movement. The reality effects are not optical but corporeal, located in cinematic motion as Gunning argues.

This emerging image regime is based on animation. This should be understood in two senses of the word: literally based on animation techniques while also based on the idea of “making lively.” Cinema animates us as much as it animates its images. Consider that most of Hardcore Henry is made possible not simply because of the GoPros but also animated sequences that morph shots into each other. Such morphing of shots can in itself be regarded as a form of animation in that shots are brought to life across each other, producing a more lively image than was otherwise possible.

Hardcore Henry is instructive for its shift to movement as its guiding principle, a movement that is in part achieved by digital animation. Our perception is renewed through estrangement. In other words, we become aware of how our perception works but in the same process our perception alters and morphs, innervating us and making us experience cinema anew.

This is an animated vision and it is why I argued that visual technologies are not prosthetic but transformative and expansive. New visual technologies entirely alter our ways of seeing, folding non-anthropomorphic vision into our bodies, animating us in new ways. However, we should not think that a renewal of perception is necessarily a means of setting perception free. In this case, the expansion and transformation of the human sensorium is a matter of control. We are affectively modulated by the post-cinematic images and the animated, innervating vision.

Hardcore Henry’s form works much the same way. The new, hypermediated experience of continuous subjective POV shots have taken form from its surrounding media environment. Cinema borrows from videogames and action videos on YouTube. But at the same time, in this adaptive move within a changing media environment, cinema still gives form in the way that our senses and bodies are modulated by Hardcore Henry’s adaptable form. Cinematic form has been exploded and no longer resembles classical cinema. And yet Hardcore Henry is still recognizable as a movie; cinema has adapted to a new regime of vision.

  1. In ascribing desire to cinema itself rather than a director or implied narrator, I follow Jean Epstein’s The Intelligence of a Machine alongside a large number of film-philosophers, ANT theorists, and new materialists. Technology, matter, etc. has agency. 
  2. This argument is far more complicated than the filmmakers let on. For more on the idea of presence, immediacy, and immersion in first-person shooters, see Steven Poole, Trigger Happy 2.0. We can simply say here, that the filmmakers succumb to the ideology of immediacy when they laud the FPS as a transparent medium. 
  3. I don’t have time to go into that concept here but I take innervation from Miriam Hansen, who expands on Benjamin’s original development of the concept. 
  4. For more on this, see Brown’s “Man without a Movie Camera – Movies without Men: Towards a Posthumanist Cinema?”