The Implied Conversation is a new regular feature column about the intersection of movies and philosophy. Like all art, film gives us an opportunity to remove ourselves from immediate circumstances and assess the world we inhabit. Each month, Jeremy Philip Galen watches a recent indie release to determine its role in this ongoing dialogue.
Subjectivity has a funny relationship to point-of-view (POV), which itself has a funny relationship with the cinema. Films that deliberately play with POV, such as 2016’s Hardcore Henry, can expose the nuance of the relationship between character and viewer, revealing how these relationships overlap and/or stand at odds.
Non-Spoiling Plot Summary
All you need to know about Ilya Naishuller’s Russian-import action flick Hardcore Henry is that practically the entire film is shot in first-person point-of-view—much like a videogame. The plot follows a guy named Henry, who wakes up one day to find his wife putting the finishing touches on robotic repairs to his damaged body.
But before his voice module can be installed properly, a megalomaniacal villain barges in the operating room and touches off the drama: Henry must stay alive long enough to save his freshly-abducted wife while simultaneously preventing the evil villain from carrying out his plot for world domination. Luckily, Henry has superior fighting skills.
Hardcore Henry is an ambitious project with mega-indie credentials. The entire 96-minute feature was shot entirely on GoPros with money raised on IndieGoGo and contains remarkably realistic action sequences and stunning visual effects. These effects lend an unsettling verisimilitude to the cruise-around-and-slay-your-enemies structure, which admittedly results in one very violent film.
Yet the (really truly absurd) body count fails to prevent one fundamentally jarring question from percolating, especially after one spends so much time confined to Henry’s hyper-violent field of vision. That question: What, exactly, is the difference between experiencing someone’s POV and experiencing their subjectivity?
A Philosophical Analysis
Henry doesn’t have a voice in the film but he does have goals, verifiable beliefs and the capacity to learn. He’s got skills, and he’s able to improve upon them with an aim toward achieving outside objectives. Those are the basic raw ingredients of a human being. When you add the indefatigable energy of a pure, task-oriented protagonist, you-the-viewer can start to feel sometimes like you’re immersed in another self.
But the riches of a mute, hyper-effective killing machine’s POV don’t quite constitute an entire “self”. What’s missing is something that standard dramatic, third-person film grammar has no trouble developing authentically: an inner life.
It’s easy for the mind to wander during Hardcore Henry, and even easier to wonder whether this is what the future of entertainment will look like. In the future, will we enter theaters to watch the world through someone else’s avatar? Or will we enter dramatic scenes through our own avatars? Is it even possible for drama to take place if a virtual audience is able to enter and interfere with it?
There’s no question we’re going to see many more films like this in the future, but there’s also no question that authentic drama is unattainable unless we’re certain that the person whose POV we’re borrowing is, in fact, an actual person, with an individualized personality. In Henry’s case, we never quite get there.
Henry isn’t a person. He’s just a mech suit the viewer gets to try on for a little while. In videogames, the interactive element allows the player to project his- or her- own humanity into the skin of the character. But Film, as yet, doesn’t allow for this level of projection, which is why films like Hardcore Henry will probably continue to be the exception in visual storytelling, rather than the norm.
Hundreds of years from now when we look back on the era of pre-VR video capture, we very well may think, “How quaint they were, those days when we weren’t avatar actors inside these elaborate chose-your-own-adventure dramas!” Or perhaps it’ll be that we will continue to seek exogenous, observational drama in order to quench our hard-wired human thirst to observe other people voyeuristically.
So long as humans remain the dominant intelligent life form on Earth, odds are that there will continue to be an irreducible difference between full-fledged subjectivity and mere point-of-view.