I've Got You Under My Skin: The Constancy of Cloning and of Gamer Identity in 'Hardcore Henry'

Jimmy from Hardcore Henry (STX Entertainment, 2016)

Henry isn't the only surrogate for gamer identity in Hardcore Henry.

Hardcore Henry

Director: Ilya Naishuller
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: STX Entertainment
US Release Date: 2016-04-08

About two thirds of the way into Hardcore Henry, Jimmy, one of the main characters in the film, performs the movie's only musical number, crooning that Sinatra staple “Got You Under My Skin” for both the titular character Henry and to “you”, the audience of the film.

Obviously, the film creates an odd relationship between the audience and the film's protagonist, Henry, by aping the first person perspective of a first-person-shooter video game. That perspective in video games is in part intended to create the illusion of the player occupying a game world almost directly, since that player is seeing seemingly through the eyes of the character that they are playing.

This is not the first time that a film has given its viewers the sense that they have suddenly become intimately involved in the action of a film, such scenes exist in films like Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991). Both films create discomfort in these moments as the audience comes seemingly under the direct gaze of a killer in the one instance and “becomes” a killer in the other instance. Rarely has such a discomforting experience been extended for such an inordinate amount of screen time in cinematic history, though, as it is in Hardcore Henry.

Creating this linkage between the viewer and the protagonist in the case of Hardcore Henry, as noted, of course, creates a clear parallel with the film's major action-oriented influence, video games. It also makes thematic sense as this is a film that is, in many ways, interested in examining video games, admiring their style, and interrogating their tropes. As I argued a couple of weeks ago about the film, one of the film's major interests is in deconstructing the convention of the “save the princess” narrative common to a multitude of video games, and in doing so (especially because the film creates this almost symbiotic relationship between Henry and the audience through its use of perspective), it also exposes player motivations in response to that narrative premise, a premise that serves as a goal for such games (Hardcore Henry Tells Gamers, Sorry There is no Princess”., PopMatters, 15 April 2015).

However, in my mind, Henry is not the only surrogate for gamer identity in Hardcore Henry. Jimmy's musical routine is also appropriate thematically for the film, as the concept of having someone under someone else's skin is a concept that gamers in general should find themselves immediately identifying with.

Now part of the purpose of Jimmy's song in the film is simply to serve as an explanation of the nature of this strange character. Jimmy is introduced early in the film as a kind of tutorial voice or support character for Henry (and the audience, since the film makes us feel like we are occupying a video game space through its choice of perspective). Jimmy shows up at various points in the film, often in wildly different get ups, ranging from modern sniper to World War II soldier to punk to nerd to hippie burnout, offer advice to Henry and to get Henry on track with his various missions, leading up to the end goal of saving his princess, his wife Estelle.

For instance, early in the film, Henry's battery pack is running low, an obvious obstacle to the primary mission of saving his one true love, so up pops Jimmy to tell him where he can get an upgrade and who and where to get it from. This is the sort of role that Cortana plays for Master Chief in the Halo series. However, unlike Cortana, Jimmy is complicated by the fact that he seems to crop up with a new identity each time that Henry and the audience see him, and he often also dies after offering the next mission objective to him and to us.

The “Got You Under My Skin” scene reveals why both things keep occurring. Jimmy is a scientific genius, whose back was broken by the film's villain, Akan (which explains why he is helping Henry pursue his wife, who is being held captive by Akan). Additionally, we learn that Jimmy, now a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, has figured out a way to clone his body multiple times and also how to inhabit those bodies, one at a time, as a way of interacting with the world through these able-bodied clones.

Jimmy's clones have no essential identity in and of themselves. They appear to be bodies with no functioning mind and no unique personality. In other words, these clones in their various guises serve as avatars for Jimmy, bodies that can be put on, then shrugged off at whim. What occurs during Jimmy's song is that Jimmy's psyche hops between various clone bodies to sing “Got You Under My Skin”, with one belting out a line or two, before collapsing, and another one hopping up to take his place, filling in the next line or two of the song.

When Jimmy sings to Henry (and us) that he has “you under my skin”, it seems another way of describing gamers' relationships to video game characters. The gamer provides the self that exists behind a multitude of video game characters, depending on what game he or she is playing. Mario has you under his skin. Lara Croft has you under her skin. Master Chief has you under his skin.

While the clones have no essential selfhood when they are unoccupied (in much the way that Mario or Lara Croft or Master Chief all lack direction and purpose without a player inhabiting their “skin”), what they have in common is a single individual mind trapped in a body incapable of performing the physical actions that these avatars are capable of performing. This idea seems much like the limitations of the gamer's physical body, which is cast off when inhabiting characters capable of superhuman physical accomplishments, like video game characters. The paraplegic Jimmy uses avatars made of flesh to become something more than he is, while gamers use digital bodies to do much the same thing. The you remains, just in many guises representing different skill sets.

That each of the clones lack an essential selfhood is probably a better description of these avatars, however, than my previous explanation of them having “no unique personality”. After all, Jimmy has imbued each of these clones with a kind of personality (punk, nerd, hippie, soldier) in much the same way that a video game player might futz with a video game character through character customization in a video game by crafting an appearance to match their abilities and personalities. This kind of customization allows Jimmy and allows gamers to at once put their personal stamp on that avatar, creating something that is more than they themselves are, while an essential “you” persists beneath each alteration in form and persona.

Indeed, Jimmy explains how liberating his clones are for him, noting that they allow to do things that he would never have risked before his injury. They are men of action. They do drugs. They sleep with as many women as they can. In other words, they serve as avatars that allow him to live out fantasies without repercussion, much as any avatar allows for a video game player.

With this liberation, though, comes a seeming cheapening of the idea of life as well. Jimmy's many deaths in the film speak to the essential nature of the avatar as a disposable unit, a thing built for experience and also for acceptable failure and loss. Indeed, towards the close of the film, Jimmy's clones become “suicidal”, as their use in a final assault on Akan's forces leads to Jimmy declaring each one unnecessary after they have accomplished each of their tasks in that final mission and allowing them to die.

These clones or avatars boil down to one of the most essential tropes in video games. They represent extra lives because , after all, if they have “you” under their skin, each one in and of itself isn't valuable. It is an extra try, a risk you intend to take in a surrogate body that is ultimately disposable and limited in value. When they die, you, after all, always remain lurking under their skin in their next incarnation.

As a result Jimmy comes to represent the seemingly immortal nature of the gamer, an immortal that takes advantage of the fact that he or she possesses extra lives, even an indefinite amount if one simply clicks “Continue” at the less than terminal moment represented by the “Game Oevr” screen. On the surface, this makes life seem cheap and disposable in video games. Though, perhaps, an extra life should be understood better in Jimmy's more liberated terms, these are extra lives, not simply because they are many of them, but because they offer “extra life”, the chance to experience a life beyond our own actual capabilities, a life lived underneath another's skin .

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