The live-action video game movie still remains a relatively lightly-tread territory even today, despite numerous adaptations in the last decade. Let’s say that, so far, no movie has quite managed to balance presenting these massive worlds with unique ecosystems, societies, and even more colourful (sometimes quite literally) characters, or found a way to present the more gamey aspects of said video games in a believable sense in the live-action format.
Many have tried, but these live-action video game movies have ultimately fallen flat on their faces.
And now, with Monster Hunter by Paul W. S. Anderson, we have quite an interesting anomaly. On one hand, it is quite a gutsy and faithful adaptation of the popular video game series by Capcom, with tons of visceral moments between the main characters, Captain Natalie Artemis (Milla Jovovich) and a dude simply called The Hunter (Tony Jaa), against some of the iconic monsters that many who played the games over the past decade have come to know and love.
On the other, it’s confused with what kind of video game movie it wants to be: a character-focused drama with a sprinkling of monsters to the side, or a balls-to-the-walls action-oriented slugfest.
To give you the lowdown on what’s going on what little plot there is in Monster Hunter, it involves a United Nations peacekeeping unit ending up stranded in another world in a freak sandstorm. Led by Captain Artemis, the squad tries to fight their way out of their new, immediately hostile environment in the form of towering monsters twice the size of tanks, and hit probably twice as hard too.
After getting floored by the beasts, Artemis meets the Hunter shortly after, who then forms a tenuous friendship with her as he trains her in the ways of hunting monsters using more traditional weapons such as dual blades, greatswords and bows. With her newfound skills, Artemis, predictably, takes down those which previously caused her so much trouble, with the aid of her companion.
It’s not the most engaging story in the world, and it’s certainly not helped by how oddly-paced the story is, and how inconsistent its tone is. For a movie about monsters and hunting them, we see an unnatural lot of moments involving the characters experiencing head trauma and what goes on in their head in these instances. While it’s understandable that even anyone, even elite soldiers, can go through severe traumatic breakdowns when faced with extreme situations, we tend to see quite a little too much of it.
Side note, it’s interesting that the preview that we caught in the cinema wasn’t the one that contained the racist scene that landed the movie a ban in China, but we digress.
It is without the doubt that the most striking feature of this film is the fact that it is a love letter to the games. Anderson is by and large one of the better go-to directors (in Hollywood, at least) to deliver a video game film such as this. It certainly helps that the 55-year-old director played the original games up until the more recent Monster Hunter World in 2018, and even got the franchise’s producers at Capcom on board as consultants to boot. Anderson’s intimate knowledge of the franchise, as well as his previous video game movie experience in Mortal Kombat and the Resident Evil franchise, is on full display here.
Aesthetically, he and his team have absolutely nailed it here. From the ships that glide across the sand, to the world’s denizens (the Meowscular Chef is the best character in the movie, period!) that dress in armour crafted from the hides of various monsters and wield unnaturally-large weapons, there certainly is a feeling of immersion when Artemis engages with these characters. Fans of the games will certainly get their due fanservicing in even these small moments. It certainly helps that the game draws its roots from the aforementioned Monster Hunter World, and, according to Anderson himself, actually takes place after the events of that game chronologically.
Though the hunters generally speak in their own native language, it does seem a little jarring when the Admiral (Ron Perlman) suddenly blurts out in English. Don’t worry, there’s actually an in-movie explanation for that, but it’s still brow-furrowingly strange and breaks verisimilitude somewhat. It might have been cooler to have all the natives speak in their own tongue with subtitles to show how Artemis has gradually learned the lingo, though we imagine there might have been other issues that led to Anderson ultimately going for this creative choice, but to each their own.
But of course, the undisputed stars of the show here are the monsters (sorry Jovovich and Jaa, but let’s face it, audiences are here for the monsters). The two main ones that have appeared in the trailer – the fearsome, sand-burrowing Diablos, and the terrifying fire-breathing ruler of the skies, Rathalos – are given so much love and attention that will make fans of the games dizzy with excitement. The decision to animate them entirely in post-production as opposed to having substitute models being filmed on set certainly helped with just how realistic they look against the backdrop of the “real” world, and the characters. It feels especially visceral and believable when Artemis and the Hunter trade blows with the beasts, with blades sinking into hide and tooth, claw, horn and barb digging into flesh in bloody awesome (pun intended) style.
Other monsters get quite a bit of screen time too, especially the spider-like Nerscylla (or more accurately put, an entire colony of them), which gets its own Alien-like horror sequence which is a surprisingly nice addition to this movie.
Anderson’s research didn’t end at just making the monsters and the world look as realistic as possible as he even went so far as to showcase their individual behaviours using visual storytelling in a really cool way – something you might even see on the Discovery channel. From how the Diablos detects sound through the vibrations in the sand; to how the Nerscylla avoids sunlight like the plague, being a cave-dweller – all these small instances are what make Monster Hunter so enjoyable from a fan’s perspective. Now all we need is David Attenborough to come in and do the voice-over narrative, and we’re gold.
As awesome as the monsters shown in the movie are, it ultimately isn’t quite the showcase gamers would have liked, as there is only so much screen time one can fit to properly give these monsters their due justice. Anderson did make the most out of what time he had with the monsters that he showed, and that is probably good enough for now. That said, he did tease a potential sequel towards the end that gives us a hint at a much larger setting than was shown. And we all know that with a franchise as big as this, a sequel is the natural choice, given there are just too many monsters with their own unique characteristics to show here. Even the way in which the characters use their weapons looks quite good and shot in scintillating fashion, though the minor special effects here are not as well-animated.
With all this fabulous fan-servicing going on in Monster Hunter, it’s natural for one to assume that only fans of the games would truly be able to appreciate just what Anderson has done here, as to the uninitiated, Monster Hunter does feel like a generic fantasy film with decent special effects and cool and unique monster roars. The language barrier between Artemis and the Hunter and his ilk seem a little awkward on-screen.
Somewhere along the way, it’s as if Anderson and his writing team were a little confused as to how they wanted to present the experience of fighting hulking monsters such as the Diablos or Rathalos. As such, the movie feels a little disjointed with how it wants to present the subject matter, ending up in a rather confused audience more often than not. There’s even a good 20 minutes dedicated to just Milla Jovovich’s and Tony Jaa’s characters beating the living daylights out of each other, which seemed to go on a little too much to the point that one might’ve even heard the monsters cry for their screen time back.
That said, the dynamic between Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa is actually quite affable, be it in the fight scenes or in their characters’ attempts to understand each other linguistically to hilarious effect. If you wanted to care about any characters here (besides the monsters, of course), it would probably be these two, but then again, don’t expect much of a character arc for any of the two lead characters, let alone minor ones, in a brainless slog-fest such as this.
Overall, we imagine many would be hopeful for Paul Anderson’s Monster Hunter to be the one that breaks the curse of the video game movie. Sorry to disappoint you, but it isn’t, as it is a hot, blistering mess when it comes to a plot, tone and pacing. But for what it lacks in those departments, it does makes up for it in geek-out moments in the showcase of some of the flagship monsters of the franchise (Diablos and Rathalos mainly), as well as the rather accurate depiction of the minor characters in the game’s world.
There is a set-up to a sequel or at least a larger world in general, but ultimately the film doesn’t do much to keep audiences invested enough to want to know just what will happen to the characters and the world. The only pertinent question here is most likely just exactly what monsters there will be in the potential new movie. And if Sony Pictures is willing to fund Anderson once more, we may yet get our wishes fulfilled with even more awesome – if campy – monster-hunting action.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
With Monster Hunter, one may as well give Paul Anderson the auteur status as a director of video game movies. This man knows how to make a game come to life on the silver screen with full-blown fan-servicing of a very high caliber. If 2020 has taken too much of a toll on your brain power to process any complex storytelling, this movie might just scratch that itch of wanting a more brainless but fun experience.
Story - 5/10
Direction - 7/10
Characterisation - 6/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8/10
Marion has a serious RPG addiction. Sometimes it bleeds into real life; he forgets to sleep because he thinks he has a Witcher’s body clock. Forgive him in advance if he suddenly blurts out terms such as “Mind Flayer” and “Magic Missile”, because never once does he stop thinking about his next Dungeons & Dragons game.