Video Games Stole the First-Person Shooter from Hollywood, But Ilya Naishuller Is Taking It Back
‘Hardcore’ plans to reinvent the action movie. It’s a great idea and total nonsense.
Last month, a thirty year old Russian filmmaker by the name of Ilya Naishuller launched an Indiegogo campaign to finish post-production on Hardcore, his debut feature, and within a month raised more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money to invest in a first-time director, but Naishuller gave his supporters just cause. They weren’t simply donating to an amateur, he reasoned, they were bankrolling an idea: “The world’s first action film to be shot 100% from the hero’s perspective.” And this was no mere gimmick. Naishuller pulled out the verb “re-invent” and put it on the table. Hardcore would be something altogether new.
Sort of. The first-person in Hardcore’s trailer seems rather familiar. The bobbing and weaving, the bullets whizzing by, the floating gun: It looks less like a movie than an excerpt from the latest Call of Duty. Naishuller welcomes the comparison, presumably because video games and the Hollywood machine are on opposite (or close to opposite) trajectories. Kat Brown, in the U.K.’s Telegraph, called the film no less than “the moment gamers have been waiting for: a gaming film with a truly kick-ass premise.” And it’s hardly surprising a game-movie hybrid would galvanize critics feeling around for the cutting edge or the place where one sort of blockbuster can be bolted to another. The problem is that while Hardcore is important (more on that later), it’s not important because it’s new. It’s important because it’s unhinged.
Though it had precursors in mid-70s wire-frame obscurities like Spasim and Maze War, the first-person shooter in its modern conception is generally recognized to have arrived with id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, released on DOS in 1992. In Wolfenstein you roam hallways as a disembodied gun, plugging little pixelated Nazis and collecting ammunition. It was hugely popular and its modern iteration are largely the same as the original – even if the Nazis now have giant, well-rendered robot suits. Because everything moves in cycles, the game programmers were actually borrowing from cinema.
What shooters refer to as “first-person,” movie historians call the “point-of-view” shot. As a cinematic convention it dates back nearly to the beginning of the motion picture. Grandma’s Reading Glass, a two-minute silent short from 1900, features several shots in which a child peers through a magnifying glass, with the film adopting his exaggerated perspective accordingly. The technique makes a similar appearance in D.W. Griffith’s super racist Birth of a Nation, from 1915, when a woman dons opera glasses to scope out John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. It’s basic stuff: Shot one shows a person staring out the back window; shot two shows us the backyard. (Ask a pornographer about it.)
This changed in the forties, when directors began to emphasis the POV of a very particular sort of character: Murderers. The key here was that often didn’t see the killer, but rather what the killer saw — his latest victim, their back turned and silently approached. Alfred Hitchcock famously leaned on the technique for two decades, eventually shooting the POV-heavy Rear Window in 1954. An adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel Lady in the Lake was the first film shot entirely in POV, revealing the face of its hero only when he happened to look in a mirror — a neat trick used by nearly every POV film since. Though it was unabashedly gimmicky in its approach, Montgomery’s film proved hugely influential; Hardcore is indebted to the film even if Naishuller has never seen it.
Still, POV remained largely the domain of killers. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, from 1960, put audiences behind the eyes of a murderer as he butchered his victims, wielding a knife Wolfenstein-style. Bob Clark’s proto-slasher Black Christmas, from 1974, did the same before John Carpenter shot the entire first sequence of Halloween from Michael Myers’ perspective.
The POV shot found its floating gun only a few years later, in 1984. That was the year of James Cameron’s low-budget sensation The Terminator, whose notorious police station raid was shot in large part from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s menacingly gun-wielding perspective. This is widely considered the origin of the first-person mode popularized by Wolfenstein: It features not only the gun in the shot but, more presciently, a rudimentary version of a heads-up display, which adorns Arnold’s vision with all manner of calculations and readouts. All that’s missing was a health bar.
The all-POV gimmick has made a post-Montgomery comeback in recent years: Both Gaspar Noe’s Day-Glo fantasy Enter the Void and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac are shot, as Hardcore is, from their hero’s first-person perspective. (Likewise Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, from 2002, which in addition to being entirely in POV was shot in a single, elaborate take.) What distinguishes Hardcore from prior films, it seems, is Naishuller’s indebtedness to the maximalism of modern video games. He’s not the first director to use the technique, but he might be the first director to do so with the explicit goal of capturing the best sort of video game kinetics.
Put another way, Naishuller is at best ignorant and at worst disingenuous, but he’s not totally wrong. Hardcore matters – just not for the reason he thinks it does. He’s not doing any reinventing, he’s just taking making a logical leap. It’s exciting stuff because he’s mimicking, well, exciting stuff.