Russian sci-fi thriller ‘Hardcore Henry’ comes out this week and is shot entirely with GoPro from the protagonist’s eyeline – here we look at the ultimate moments when film made you feel like the main character
With the found-footage genre drained of battery life, a contender to snatch its lo-fi throne is the POV movie. Leading the gimmicky revolution is Hardcore Henry, a Russian sci-fi thriller shot entirely with GoPro cameras from the protagonist’s eye-line. Be warned: you may need a sickbag, especially if you’re uncomfortable with rollercoasters or the prospect of 95 minutes with Sharlto Copley.
After picked up festival buzz (and yes, word of mouth it may induce vomiting), Hardcore Henry will likely inspire floods of imitators, but for now it’s new and long overdue. Despite cinema’s intentions to immerse viewers in character viewpoint, few directors commit to the full hardcore experience, which makes Ilya Naishuller’s thriller one of those “why didn’t I think of that before?” moments. So here’s a celebration of the best use of POV in film, when you’re placed directly in the action – and don’t think you have a say in the matter, and you’re forced to see the world through their eyes.
YOU’RE A HEAVY-BREATHING PEEPING TOM
The 2012 remake of Maniac is remembered (ie it’s so revolting, good luck forgetting it) for its mostly first-person viewpoint of a creep played by Elijah Wood – he breathes audibly, eyes up women on the street, and stealthily trails them home. Incessant and exhausting, it recreates the nonstop voyeurism that occurs in public: the opening scene illustrates the ease of sitting in a car and checking out strangers. Then it goes a few murders further. For anyone who’s stumbled across the Twitter profile of an MRA or professional pervert and wondered how they actually live, here’s a (hopefully) exaggerated first-hand taster – the bloodshed is a warning sign (and CV for whoever did the makeup).
YOU’RE IN HOSPITAL AND THINKING THINGS THROUGH
If a dying character’s internal monologue won’t shut up, the POV shots – a bit blurry, facing an ambulance ceiling – are crucial because the voiceover is drawn only from that person’s final memory. For instance, In Bruges switches to bleeding Colin Farrell’s viewpoint, during which he questions if he’s doomed for an eternity in hell. What he sees is the distant night sky, and in a weird way, his paranoia is relatable. Better yet, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly depicts Jean-Dominique Bauby’s last few months in hospital with locked-in syndrome. Paralysed and only able to move an eyelid, he authors a book by blinking strategically – which we see through his eyes, with his thoughts, and it’s unimaginable any other way.
YOU‘RE THE COLD HEARTED MURDERER
How does it feel to kill a human being and witness his or her helpless eyes staring back in anguish? Thanks to Giallo horrors, we have a decent idea and won’t forget the black gloves – not to prevent fingerprints, but as a nod to Mario Bava and Dario Argento. These deaths, often sexed up with rock n’ roll or slinky jazz, are nearly always the highlight of old Italian slashers, especially after sitting impatiently through the stilted talky bits. It’s sick and you should be ashamed. At least it’s not your fault – the director made you do it.
YOU’RE GETTING LAID
If we tiptoe around a similar-sounding corner of the video market that beat Hardcore Henry to POV filmmaking, let’s explore the adage that sex sells in cinema. Everyone knows it. So it’s odd that on-screen fornication tends to refrain from POV, unless it’s part of a sci-fi gimmick involving virtual reality. For instance, Strange Days, Brainstorm and to an extent Being John Malkovich swiftly introduce the male gaze in some bedroom action. An exception is Lukas Moodysson’s deliberately unsexy Lilya 4-Eva when Lilya is forced into prostitution and we see what she sees: a harrowing series of sweaty men, holding her down, panting disgustingly into the camera.
YOU’RE NOT WHO YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE
Nothing new, right? Well, our ongoing identity crises aren’t quite as cinematic as Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, a Bogart/Bacall matchup that shadows a murder suspect on the run. The first 30 minutes is through the guy’s eyes until plastic surgery sculpts his face into a new identity. It’s the 1947 alternative to prosthetics: show nothing. It’s also a trick and treat updated by John Carpenter for Halloween, which begins with the killer’s POV while he stabs a teen girl. Then the camera reveals you’re the victim’s younger brother. Yes, you’re six years old, clutching a knife, and lucky enough to discover the one activity that brings you pleasure.
YOU’RE ACTUALLY ERROL MORRIS
Not all talking heads docs have to look alike. Legendary director and part-time inventor Errol Morris is responsible for the Interrotron, a two-way video machine allowing interviewees to speak straight into the camera. Basically, the lens is overlaid by a live feed of Morris somewhere else asking questions, meaning the subject’s answers are fed directly to the viewer. It’s more engaging that the typical slightly-to-the-side method (which is distancing and overused) and you play the role of interrogator: are they shuffling uncomfortably because they’re lying on camera, or are they just flummoxed by speaking into a weird contraption?
YOU’RE ABOUT TO GET SUCKER PUNCHED
If you hate Hardcore Henry, forward your death threats to Abel Gance (already dead) who invented the POV shot in his 1927 silent film Napoléon. The then revolutionary tactic involved padding the lens so it could be punched by Napoléon’s enemies, which is a shot replicated for every boxing film to date. In Raging Bull, Scorsese combines the viewpoint with slo-mo; you’re De Niro in the ring, eyeing up an opponent, preparing for the fatal blow – and when it comes, it’s back to full-speed, blood-splattered, third-person reality.
YOU’RE A REAL ANIMAL
Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, a psychosexual drama on a farm, momentarily switches to a cow’s POV for a reminder that animals are invisible eavesdroppers on your backstabbing conversations. More freeing is Bird People, a slow, ennui-filled French drama that midway morphs a female hotel maid into – you guessed it – a bird. As she learns to fly, with the internal monologue of her human self, it’s a POV of someone believing she’s ready to fall but unexpectedly soars. So it’s your dreams put to screen, with the whooshing bonus of departing the human race.
It’s fine to be sober at a party. That said, it’s harder to connect with bleary-eyed strangers whose conversation involves listing substances and staring at their hands. In films, the standard gag is to have someone freaking out in an ordinary environment – but nearly always from the outsider’s perspective. More interesting is Enter the Void which dives deep into the DMT experience, even adding in when Oscar blinks and a slurred reverb for his internal monologue. Otherwise, what’s the point? Kudos to Get Him to the Greek, so rarely credited for its visuals (or at all), for a mouth POV when Jonah Hill takes too much absinthe. The prop tongue can be yours for just £295.
YOU’RE PRETENDING TO BE INDESTRUCTIBLE
As a non-gamer, I’m not a fan of watching someone else play X-Box or whatever. Yet the associated first-person aesthetic is oddly alluring in Hardcore Henry, Pandemic and even Arnie’s POV shots of Terminator, not just for the pure action head rush, but because embodying an avatar delivers a fun sense of immortality. Seeing through the Terminator’s eyes – basically Google Glass – delivers the fantasy of possessing robotic superpowers and adventuring into the real world without a fear of death. Of course, it’s ironic that gaming is an unrewarding way to waste away what precious little time we have on Earth, but at least in film form there’s a time limit.
YOU’RE THE NARRATOR – IT’S JUST EASIER THAT WAY
All 96 minutes of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark are done entirely in one take from the POV of a dead narrator ambling around a museum. Though not the bank robbery of Victoria, the arthouse epic’s thrills are in the meticulous choreography that allows the cameraperson to hover between set-pieces. In a way, all single-take sequences possess this meta quality: you’re the DP and don’t you dare mess up. Note in Victoria the distraction when whoever’s holding the camera only just about squeezes into a lift – whereas if you make it POV, as in Russian Ark, suddenly it’s a tense making-of documentary.