If video game movies have a king, that man is Paul W.S. Anderson. Starting with Mortal Kombat in 1995, Anderson is responsible for many of the most middlingly-acceptable video game movies of the last quarter century. That sounds like I'm dunking on the guy, but video game movies have historically bordered on unwatchable. Anderson, meanwhile, directed the first Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil films, which are considered two early examples that both honor the source material and work as films.
Now, Anderson has set his sights on another video game created by Japanese developer Capcom for adaptation: Monster Hunter. The result is a movie that tries to please everyone by both staying faithful to its source material and bending over backward to be "accessible;" it does both to its own detriment as it gets bogged down by reality before leaving many of its most interesting aspects unexplored.
The movie opens on one of the most visually impressive sequences, though it makes a promise the rest of the film can't keep. A sandship--a sailboat moving across the desert as if in water--hurtles across the dunes, hinting at a strange world full of strange technology and even stranger monsters. And then we cut to humvees and a bunch of people in military fatigues singing songs about how much being in the Army sucks, and nothing that matters happens for at least another hour. That's because Monster Hunter actually takes place from the point of view of Milla Jovovich's character, Lt. Artemis. She and her Army Rangers are looking for a missing squad in the African desert when a Mad Max: Fury Road-grade sandstorm sweeps up the characters and they wake up in a different, sandier desert.
From that point, it's almost an hour before we get any real action, and it's over almost before it starts. The 103-minute movie feels like a stretched-out version of the first 45 minutes of a much more interesting movie.
Anderson spoke at length about wanting the audience to feel like a new player in a Monster Hunter game; a person from our world experiencing the expansive world Capcom has built up over the last decade. That sounds like a smart idea on paper, but it ignores the fact that, over the last decade, moviegoers have been engulfed in nerd culture. Casual viewers of superhero movies know what a multiverse is, and can make sense of the machinations of Houses Stark and Targaryen. They even know that some Mandalorians don't take off their helmets, but others do. Anderson's mistake here is that we don't need onboarding into the world of Monster Hunter. The accessibility angle, largely pinned to the army aspect, comes across as condescending in 2020.
Another seemingly smart idea Anderson had was to be faithful to the games, right down to consulting with the game creators on his translations of the games' monster designs. Anderson has told a story more than once in interviews of having to dull the Diablos' claws at the behest of one of the game designers, because Diablos is a sand-burrowing creature and would have its claws worn down from the friction.
The way that manifests in the film is that we spend a lot of time in training and trap-preparation montages as Lt. Artemis gets to know Tony Jaa's character, "the Hunter" (more on him later). These sequences are full of details that committed Monster Hunter fans will love, but do little to either move the story forward or flesh out the characters in any meaningful way.
It's a shame, too, because Monster Hunter is a gorgeous movie. The filmmakers spent a lot on special effects and set design. Diablos and the other monsters look great, and both their size and threat are conveyed well; watching Artemis and the Hunter fight Diablos brought back memories of doing the same in Monster Hunter World. Anderson went out of his way to make the environments look like something otherworldly; the desert is stark and imposing, the jungle incredibly lush. The cave the Nerscylla spiders dwell in and the field of domes above them gave me the willies.
The movie rides on the backs of Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, and Ron Perlman. Jovovich looks at home in her Monster Hunter outfit, twirling around with twin blades. In addition to being married to the director, she's a veteran of his movies, and it shows. Tony Jaa and Ron Perlman, meanwhile, are wasted. Jaa is one of the premiere movie martial artists in the world, and it's always a treat to see him do his thing. Only here, he's exclusively fighting Jovovich, and these sequences have more cuts than a dead Rathalos. Jaa goes a long way toward making the property's trademark oversized weapons look even a little believable, but his world-class martial arts are otherwise unused, and the character never actually says a word in English and gets no subtitles when he does speak.
Ron Perlman, meanwhile, looks less like a character who grew up in the same world as The Hunter and more like an aging cosplayer with lots of enthusiasm and free time. Plus, he's barely in the movie, and when he does appear, he's saddled with delivering big dumps of nonsensical exposition.
Monster Hunter fans will be bored by the entire first act of the movie, but will enjoy the dozens of Easter eggs and nods Anderson sprinkled throughout, from the game-perfect campfire that Artemis and the Hunter chill at in the second half to the Meowscular Chef (That's his name. ) that Artemis meets during her second escape sequence. Newcomers, meanwhile, will also be bored by the entire first act of the movie, and will wonder what's happening throughout the rest of it. It's not that the story is incomprehensible, but that very little happens, and it's mostly in the service of setting up an action-packed climax with plenty of room for a sequel.
The parts that work, work really well. The same way that 2014's Godzilla excelled when Godzilla was on the screen, Monster Hunter is a blast when Artemis and the Hunter are fighting the authentically realized monsters. But the movie seems more interested in seeing giant monsters destroying helicopters and Humvees than in exploring its actual interesting setting.