Before we get started, I feel it’s important to get something out of the way: if you don’t like Paul W.S. Anderson’s films, it’s highly unlikely that Monster Hunter is going to be the one to turn you around on that. So if you read that headline and opened this review thinking “oh my God, is it possible?! Did this director that I hate finally make a good movie?!”, you’ll be sorry to hear that no, this is still not the time that Anderson’s made a “normal” movie that caters to your encoded notion of a “good movie”. If at this point you’re still not ready to open your mind to Anderson’s extravagant and out-of-the-box style of filmmaking, then you’re simply not gonna like Monster Hunter. However, if you’re in for it… Then you’re in for a ride.
Based on the best-selling Capcom title, Monster Hunter is Anderson’s and Milla Jovovich’s newest venture into bringing a videogame franchise to cinemas, and the game itself feels right up the writer/director’s alley to do what he does best: meddle videogame and film language to achieve fresh forms of storytelling. Something that Anderson did with Resident Evil that became one of the main issues that hardcore, gatekeeping fans of the series had with his adaptation was the creation of Alice, an original character, as the protagonist; well, Monster Hunter is a property that lends itself to that considerably more, after all this is a game where you create your own character, and that concept is transferred to movie form via a character – Jovovich’s Captain Artemis – that is transported from our world to a New World, where the film is set, and there she’ll need to build herself from scratch in order to survive by its rules.
Easily the most interesting thing about Paul W.S. Anderson’s approach to videogame films is how he is never interested in making a simple by-the-books narrative adaptation, he’s interested in making a true medium adaptation – movies that actually warrant being called “videogame movies”. He could’ve very well made an traditional translation of the fantasy world of Monster Hunter to film that people would expect, but rather than just making a generic fantasy film, Anderson wants to mash gaming and cinematic languages to create something unique. So he adapts not only the world and the story, but concepts inherent to gaming such as character creation, level advancing and boss fights into elements of his films’ world-building.
In Monster Hunter, we get to see Artemis – an avatar of our reality tossed in this fantasy world with a name so mythical it might’ve just been how I’d name my character in a game – advance through stages, build up her level, unlock armors, weapons and skills to use in her journey. She needs to reach a specific point in the map, but she can’t cross a certain territory without first defeating its boss, which she’s not yet high-leveled enough to face, so she needs to upgrade herself and her weapons by defeating smaller-ranking creatures first and using their resources. That’s exactly what playing Monster Hunter feels like, and even without the privilege of the digital interfaces and technological plot devices that Anderson had at his service with the Resident Evil films, he still manages to create a perfect example of true videogame storytelling in here.
At this point in his career, Anderson is very self-aware and he knows what’s generally expected from his films, so he takes advantage of that to subvert some of those expectations this time. The movie starts off setting itself on a “military unit searching for their fellow team gets trapped in unknown environment with hostile creatures” course that distinctively evokes the premises of the original Resident Evil game and Predator – two properties which the filmmaker has tackled before -, only it takes a turn to become a different story entirely. It’s about this soldier lost in a world she doesn’t know trying to return home, with cleverly snuck in jabs at militarism as Artemis is tossed in there while doing a job she doesn’t feel like she wants to be doing but has to, and in the midst of trying to get back to it, she finds something truly worth fighting for. Whatever it is she was doing for the army is rendered irrelevant when compared to the conflict happening at the New World that was once unbeknownst to her. Not at all military propaganda, but a commentary on how intervening forces are virtually ignorant to the local problems of the lands they find themselves in, and an offering for its protagonist to choose which fight matters.
What was most surprising to me, however, and one of the strongest assets of the film is how the majority of Monster Hunter revolves around Jovovich’s Artemis and Tony Jaa’s Hunter alone, journeying to survive together and communicating however they can – generally through action and demonstration rather than words, since neither speaks the language of the other. That way, Monster Hunter ends up being a very intimate movie about just two people from different worlds trying to relate to one another, and developing a relationship of comradery as they band together to find their home, battling through mighty monsters and dire situations. Anderson is very smart as he chooses to tell an up-close, personal story of two characters with occasional bursts of grandeur as a reminder that this is part of a larger world; that way, he has a compelling journey and optimizes his limited budget so that he can spend as much as possible on the visual effects and the rendering of the creatures. It works, because Jovovich and Jaa have beautiful chemistry and their characters shine as they lead you into this adventure, and at the same time, the CGI and the monsters are jaw-droppingly phenomenal to contemplate.
As a kaiju movie – and it is one, even produced by Toho as a matter of fact -, Monster Hunter treats its creatures with colossal, majestic respect. Not only are the designs amazing and insanely faithful to the game’s, Anderson doesn’t skimp on monster screen time and gives every creature here its time to shine. Each one is responsible for a different kind of territory – or “level” – and offers its own type of set piece, allowing the filmmaker to explore diverse ways to confront and hunt the monsters throughout the picture, from the horror-esque sequences of the arachnids Nerscylla to the explosively epic showdown against the great dragon Rathalos. Like any good boss fight, each creature has a well-realized, elaborate logic as to how to defeat them, and setting those specific goals for the characters to achieve in battle amps up the element of tension and the thrills of those confrontations.
Like so, this is a movie that advances its plot through action and reaction more than anything else. It doesn’t bother subtitling the foreign language spoken by Tony Jaa, and still it makes him a fleshed out character who you can relate to through Jaa’s very expressive performance. On top of it, the film moves forward through Glen MacPherson’s stunning cinematography and Doobie White’s frenetically rhythmic editing that make the action sequences breathtaking to experience. Anderson has a visually mesmerizing way of manipulating the film’s speed from contemplative slow-motion shots to relentless fast cuts with surgical precision, and along with Paul Haslinger’s epic meddling of orchestra and synths in the original score, those unstoppable visuals create an immersive experience that cranks everything up to the maximum volume. It’s a shame that the need for commercial viability forces the film to have Ron Perlman’s character speak English so that Artemis has someone to dialogue with at some point, because in reality the movie didn’t at all need it and would’ve benefited from remaining more focused on visual storytelling all the way through like it is for most of its length, giving that Jovovich alone is more than strong enough a lead to be the audience’s one and only mediator with the New World.
One thing that I wasn’t as much a fan of in this film as I am in most other of Paul W.S. Anderson’s is how the sequel cliffhanger is handled. It’s not that big of a deal, but in a film that is otherwise very well paced, the post-climax aftermath is a bit too quick and it doesn’t feel like it gives this story’s ending the proper time to sink in before jumping onto the next one. Still, that’s hardly enough of an issue to trample just how much fun I had with this. Monster Hunter is a enormously entertaining movie that’s all about movement, action and cool ass monsters, and a fine addition to Anderson’s style of videogame filmmaking. I do hope that the digital and Home Video sales of this film do very well to compensate for the pandemic-hurdled box office, because I want six more of these.
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