A few months ago, I wrote a piece on the future of first-person cinema that used the success of video game streaming as a reference point. It’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently; with virtual reality making a splash at film festivals big and small, the boundaries between what we consider movies and video games seem to be getting weaker a day at a time. And since Hardcore Henry hit theaters with a thud this past weekend, I thought I’d finally make time to watch Unfriended and see if either film offers some additional insight into where we’re headed.
There are a few good reasons to compare Unfriended and Hardcore Henry. Both films were the brainchild of Russian producer Timur Bekmambetov; both were also given wide April releases by independent distributors after a successful run on the festival circuit. Most importantly, though, both films attempt to cash in on the shrinking gap between cinema and interactive storytelling by shooting from the subjective perspective of their leads. Unfriended depicts a group of high schoolers in the middle of a group video chat; Hardcore Henry puts us in the shoes of the eponymous Henry as he shoots, stabs, and explodes his way across the country to find his kidnapped wife. While the reviews of both were somewhat mixed, audiences and critics seemed to agree that the two films are a somewhat successful experiment in the emerging first-person form.
Granted, Unfriended is not the most rigid application of the first-person perspective. We still see the main character’s screen even as she steps away from her computer, and the film constantly adjusts the audio to bring the Skype conversations in or out of focus as needed. For the most part, though, Unfriended asks the audience to roleplay as Blaire, prototypical high school ‘final girl.’ Through our view of her computer screen, we see the typed responses she chooses to delete, watch as she navigates between applications on her desktop, and even hear the occasional gasp as she reacts to new information off-camera. Our view may not move wildly to indicate its subjectivity, but it doesn’t have to. Blaire’s computer screen provides all the contextual information we need.
And once it establishes itself as a first-person horror film, Unfriended breaks down the conventions of the traditional horror film and reapplies them to a virtual space. Movies about haunted houses are adept at taking our childhood houses and corrupting them, turning our basements and bedrooms into the source of the threat. In Unfriended, screenwriter Nelson Greaves offers social media as the modern parallel for our physical safe spaces. We store our personal information on websites like Facebook and Twitter without regard to who may be watching; we accept the illusion of control we are given until someone far more dangerous than us breaks into this space and moves things around. Our digital security, like our home security, is something rarely considered until it goes wrong.
The brilliance of Unfriended isn’t that it rebuilds the horror genre from the ground up. Quite the opposite, really: it finds a way to tell a very conventional narrative through a modern aesthetic. Having the ghost threaten Blaire and her friends through Skype isn’t all that different than a film where the killer calls the house or a group of teenagers experiments with an Ouija board. The film even manages to find the digital equivalent for some of our favorite horror tropes. In one instance, Blaire cycles through countless Chat Roulette partners asking for help, echoing the scene common to slashers where the protagonist tries to flag down others for help and is either overlooked or ignored. Lurking beneath the novelty of the Skype windows and chat screens is a very traditional, very effective ghost story, and Unfriended wisely lets the storytelling drive the first-person aesthetic, not the other way around.
That puts the film in stark contrast to Hardcore Henry, an action movie that emphasizes camera work ahead of storytelling and suffers as a result. On the one hand, the film does an excellent job of translating kinetic action sequences to the first-person perspective. While the repetition of the fight scenes wore on me eventually, the fight choreography is surprisingly coherent, and seeing things unfold in more-or-less real time is a nice change of pace from the stylized slow motion of so many Hollywood blockbusters. On the other hand, the film makes no effort to tell an engaging story beyond the action sequences, cobbling together a handful of plot points lifted directly from bad eighties action movies. Whereas Unfriended suggested that the writer had taken apart the horror genre to see what made it tick, Hardcore Henry’s plot is crammed into the nooks and crannies not already occupied by parkour.
It’s fitting, then, that the only character of any real substance is also the film’s most obvious attempt to make sense of its own hybridity. As a nod to their own unique method of storytelling, Hardcore Henry introduces the concept of cybernetic avatars for one of its main characters. Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy, previously crippled by the film’s villain, escapes his broken body by taking control of an an army of androids offering different versions of himself. There are soldier Jimmys, hitman Jimmys, homeless Jimmys, and hacker Jimmys, and the man behind the machines switches between each as the story progresses. Through these avatars, Jimmy periodically reflects on the act of continuously dying and being reborn; there’s substance here, but substance too quickly set aside in favor of the next explosive action sequence.
If there is any lesson to be learned from these two films, then, it is that the first-person film works best when it does not fall in love with its own subjectivity. For all the reasons discussed in my previous article, audiences are better-suited to engage with a movie like Unfriended or Hardcore Henry than ever before, but these films need to understand that they are films first and experiments in interactive media second. Even if there does come a time where virtual reality storytelling has become the norm, movies will endure as a way for audiences to project themselves onto other characters without having to play an active role in developing the narrative. Films – even those that dabble in the first-person – are still required to follow the basic precepts of storytelling and genre before they can satisfy their urge to play with the video game perspective. It’s a lesson that Unfriended took to heart but Hardcore Henry utterly ignores; here’s hoping the next (inevitable) Timur Bekmambetov-produced experiment chooses the right path to follow.