Why Are Movies Shot Fully In “First-Person POV” Such a Bad Idea?

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2014

Hardcore Grenade

Indiegogo/Hardcore The Movie

When Robert Montgomery made Lady in the Lake in 1947, there were no video games, nor was home movie-making yet a popular hobby. But like the “first-person POV” films of today, which are often inspired by one or the other, that early experiment in technique was also modeled after a precedent. Montgomery wasn’t going for just a clever cinematographic trick or gimmick extended to feature-length. There was some logic behind the device of Lady in the Lake, as it aims to be a faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel by translating its first-person literary style into the language of motion pictures. The result was deemed an interesting idea but not a good one, in practice. There’s something jarring about movies shot fully in the POV style, and something kind of hokey about them, too. And yet people keep making them anyway.

The latest attempt is Hardcore, which is being produced by Timur Bekmambetov and directed by Ilya Naishuller and which co-stars Sharlto Copley. From the start billed as “the world’s first POV action movie,” clearly inspired by “first-person shooter” video games and achieved in part thanks to the employment of GoPro cameras, the project now has a crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo in order to raise $250k for post-production costs. That makes it sound like nobody in the industry would finance such a crazy concept, but Naishuller states that the decision is more about not letting the movie be “dictated by the terms of it’s distribution, but rather by the people who put thousands of hours into making it happen.” The question is: how much do moviegoers really want another feature shot fully in “first-person POV”? Going by the speed of funding so far, apparently a lot.

Looking at the footage in the campaign video, little is different now than it was back in 1947. As with Lady in the Lake, we see everything happen in front of the camera as if we’re watching events play out through the protagonist’s eyes. Instead of a hand extending out and into frame to light a cigarette, here it’s to pull the pin out of a grenade. But there’s also none of the obvious narrative purpose that came with that adaptation technique. Hardcore isn’t based on anything specific, so it seems to be all about doing something that hasn’t been done before, something ambitious that also looks cool, hopefully all the way through. And why shouldn’t cinema get to simply have its own version of the first-person novel anyway? Why should literature get all the fun of having different narrative perspectives to choose from? And video games, too? Why should it have to skip the film medium?

Well, here’s the thing: “first-person POV” in film and video games is a lie as labeled and not actually the equivalent of first-person narrative in literature. When we read a story told in the first-person, we’re not meant to feel like we’re the protagonist. That’s second-person literature, which is mostly the form for guidebooks and Choose Your Own Adventure novels. There’s therefore a distinction that should be finally made about why we’ve come to believe movies like Hardcore are worthwhile. First-person documentaries have given way to the first-person type of found footage fiction films, and both may appear to be of a similar breed as “first-person POV,” but they’re not. The literary alignment there is memoir and first-person journalism for the nonfiction variety and actually first-person narrative fiction for the latter. For “first-person POV,” it’s more like the equivalent of a role-playing game rulebook.

Of course, there is no interactivity allowed in a movie like this, so for it to relate to an RPG or video game or even Choose Your Own Adventure book is only a terrible reminder that we’re not being made to feel like the protagonist here, only like someone strapped to the back of the protagonist, without our own free will. As it’s often said with films made to look and feel like a video game, Hardcore is going to instead look and feel like the experience of watching someone else play one. And that’s been an oddly misunderstood issue for years regarding the concept. It’s never a good idea for movies to try to totally mimic other media, whether it’s redundantly transferring frames of a graphic novel to film or aping gameplay. When it’s the latter, though, it’s not just adapting stories across the media, and there’s going to be the question of value in translating a fun activity into passive entertainment.

That doesn’t mean there will never be a worthwhile reason for this kind of second-person cinema, wrongly labeled as first-person cinema, to exist. Just as how amateur-film technology has increased and made relevant the truly first-person style of personal documentary and found-footage, newer ways of filming and viewing movies are heading in the direction of where the second-person style makes some sense. The GoPro cameras already allow Hardcore to look more legitimate with the POV it’s attempting to achieve, and maybe a new form of exhibition can make our experience follow suit. Virtual Reality platforms are probably the perfect means through which to watch this type of movie, and I think the Oculus Rift will be available for consumer use just in time for Hardcore’s release next year.

Being a movie still keeps it from being interactive, but so far the passive VR experience has been more acceptable than the passive screen experience of something second-person due to its intended total replication of personal POV. Perhaps for now the ability to contribute to the funding of Hardcore will be enough involved, free-will interaction for the people who want to see it.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.