NOTE: “Monster Hunter” is now available to rent or buy digitally or on Blu-Ray and DVD in North America, but is also still playing in some theatres here and elsewhere in the world. When possible, we recommend watching movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing pandemic however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
FOR REFERENCE: This review of, “Monster Hunter” is based on an an at-home digital screening.
As loath as gamers are to admit it, one of the most successful names in the growing market of video game-to-film adaptations is Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson first shot to fame with his highly enjoyable 1995 movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat for New Line Cinema (a movie franchise that’s ironically getting a reboot later this month), and after a couple of one-offs like Event Horizon, he went on to settle into his most comfortable and well-known gig; Overseeing Sony Pictures’ successful Resident Evil movie franchise, which currently holds the record for the longest-running Hollywood movie series inspired by a video game property, as well as the most commercially successful zombie movie franchise worldwide. Despite a very tenuous connection to the story, lore and characters established in the Resident Evil video games, Sony’s Resident Evil movies, defying critical and fan backlash every time, went on to gross a collective $1.2 billion worldwide by the time they wrapped up with their sixth and final movie in 2017.
In the end, the negative reception to Anderson’s Resident Evil movies, as well as their heavy deviation from the source material, didn’t disturb their fortunes at all. Thus, it’s not altogether surprising that Capcom, the Japanese game company that created and owns Resident Evil, would eventually entrust Anderson with the task of translating another of their beloved IP’s to the big screen. One short negotiation later, and Anderson and Sony Pictures successfully acquired the movie rights to Monster Hunter, which stands alongside Resident Evil as one of Capcom’s most successful video game properties. Monster Hunter is a bona fide cultural phenomenon in its native Japan, where it rivals the popularity of juggernaut video game franchises like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, and it recently expanded to international acclaim as well, including here in the West, off the back of 2018’s Monster Hunter: World, a massive, sprawling, persistently-expanded co-op action game that initially released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and expanded to PC almost a year later.
The late 2010’s and early 2020’s have also seen video game adaptations start to gradually improve in quality, finally weakening the so-called ‘video game curse’ that has seemingly plagued Hollywood since 1993’s terrible Super Mario Bros. movie first stunk up theatres. The time could certainly be right to deliver a big, triple-A Monster Hunter movie franchise, which could have enjoyed a similar wave of success as recent video game movies, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog. The problem however is that Anderson is still approaching Monster Hunter the way he approached his Resident Evil movies, which were mostly made at a time when video game movies were quite simply not expected to be good by pretty much anyone, especially gamers!
But obviously, the times, they are a-changin’. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog presented more beloved, universally appealing movie adaptations of their respective video game properties, and most importantly, movie adaptations that made quite a bit of money at the global box office. Monster Hunter, by comparison, is a box office bomb, even considering that it initially premiered at a time when most movie theatres across the world were closed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with no option to view the movie at home during its first few months on the market. This is likely at least partially because Monster Hunter feels obsolete and dead-on-arrival, being a quick, low-budget production that looks like it was made at the start of the 2010’s.
Obviously, with Hollywood primed to embrace an imminent explosion of triple-A video game adaptations with the dawn of the 2020’s, and even premium television getting in on this anticipation, as HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+, among others, have begun to develop their own blockbuster live-action dramas inspired by video game properties, Monster Hunter is a day late and a dollar short, to say the least. It’s a disposable, comparably low-effort B-movie that just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. The days where video game adaptations have no expectations behind them are starting to fall away, and rather than successfully launch another moderately profitable new movie venture for Sony and Capcom, Monster Hunter instead definitively proves that video game movies are no longer able to simply coast on moviegoers’ apathy anymore.
Monster Hunter stars, big shock, Paul W.S. Anderson’s wife and favoured lead actress, Milla Jovovich, portraying a US Army Ranger, Lt. Natalie Artemis. Artemis is riding in the desert with her fellow soldiers, when the group suddenly gets dropped into an alternate world, one filled with gigantic, terrifying monsters that are out to make a meal of them. Artemis must thus find a way home, having to rely on a local hunter that doesn’t speak her language, played by Tony Jaa. Then there’s something about how the monsters want to invade our real world, and obviously that can’t happen, and no, that’s not a thing in the Monster Hunter video games, nor has it been a thing in most movies in decades.
Despite its bizarre, shallow and unevenly-cooked plot (more on that later), and mostly-undefined characters however, Anderson does hit upon a semi-appealing hook, almost by accident. Jovovich and Jaa uphold Monster Hunter single-handedly, not due to their ability to fight monsters, but due to their amusing and curious rapport as two very distinct badass fighters that can’t directly communicate with one another. This is actually kind of clever, since, logically, the people of the Monster Hunter world logically shouldn’t speak English, or any recognizable Earth language for that matter. It may be unintentional, but at least Monster Hunter achieves some decent novelty as a buddy movie with a language barrier, and to its credit, it does fully commit to said language barrier with Jaa’s character, who never fully learns English, even by the end credits.
Despite Jovovich and Jaa having some legitimately fun interactions though, neither of their characters are developed beyond bare-bones cliches. Their motivations are too simple, and their worlds lack any meaningful depth or backstory. This creates the feeling of a disposable monster mash for twelve-year-olds, which is more or less what people thought video games were back in the 80’s and 90’s, and in turn, what they believed video game movies should logically strive for at the time. Now that the video game medium has since matured into a meaningful, flexible form of art and storytelling even for grown adults however, Monster Hunter feels like a movie out of time. In fact, at best, Monster Hunter reminded me of a more fantastical version of Sony Pictures’ Venom movie from 2018, existing as an unintentional throwback that sometimes succeeds as good dumb fun, but is nonetheless heavily behind the times when it comes to the modern conventions of what it’s trying to adapt.
Regardless, after Artemis inevitably loses her squad of redshirts, a few new characters come into play towards the climax, one most notably played by Ron Perlman, in fact. Even then though, Monster Hunter doesn’t manage to develop its characters as believable human beings, even in the context of a fun, monster-filled alternate reality. Not even the denizens of the monster world feel like they have any real stake in anything. There’s no reason for them to care about Artemis’ world, just like there’s not much of a reason for Artemis to care about their world. These two things just don’t go together. Thus, what’s left is at least the hope that the characters can hold their own in a battle against giant monsters, which, I suppose they mostly can. Obviously though, your mileage will vary when it comes to how much some simple-minded monster battles can carry you through an entire feature film’s runtime, especially if you’re a fan of the Monster Hunter video games that’s used to a much higher standard than what this movie ultimately delivers.
As far as a storyline for Monster Hunter’s first movie adaptation goes, it really doesn’t have one. Anderson’s wafer-thin script instead just plunks its lead into an alternate reality full of monsters, specifically that of the Monster Hunter video games, before setting her on a quest to get back home, while preventing the monsters from invading Earth. That’s it. That’s practically the whole storyline! There’s really nothing to spoil, at least beyond the inevitable sequel bait that teases a follow-up that will probably never happen, a frustrating Paul W.S. Anderson staple that dates all the way back to his 1995 Mortal Kombat movie.
I can appreciate a Monster Hunter movie that primarily wants to be about the monsters, and especially a movie that’s adapting a video game franchise wherein the player portrays an undefined, avatar-style character that you’re meant to project your own identity upon. Even then though, a movie has to give you something human to identify with. Otherwise, you might as well just watch a child bash two action figures together for an hour and forty minutes. I assume that Milla Jovovich’s Lt. Artemis was meant to be that human element, but even she merely ends up being another military badass stereotype, one solely designed to survive, and kill, and sing cringeworthy military chants, apparently.
This in turn brings me to an even bigger question; Why bother with this whole alternate world angle? Despite the fact that players create a custom character to control in them, the Monster Hunter games do have their own lore, particularly in regards to the monsters that players hunt, and how they impact the world around them. This movie feels both under-complicated and over-complicated at the same time, specifically by forcing a needless connection to our real world into it, one that’s not at all present in the source games. Couldn’t Anderson have crafted a human story set exclusively within the established world of Monster Hunter? After all, players are often spurred to hunt monsters in the source games for believably human reasons, such as revitalizing a struggling village, or even seeking personal glory within a hunters’ guild, among other objectives. Either of those goals alone could have served as a healthy narrative foundation for a Monster Hunter movie!
I will say that I still enjoyed the idea of Artemis having to team up with a veteran monster hunter that she can’t directly communicate with though, possibly emulating the sense of playing one of these big, shared world games online with a stranger. Even then though, this hook doesn’t feel like it totally belongs in a Monster Hunter movie, despite the Monster Hunter games’ increasing emphasis on online co-operative play. This confused application of the real world versus the Monster Hunter world simply leads to a movie that feels cheesy, unbelievable and, worst of all, mostly unrecognizable within the world and conventions of the Monster Hunter video games. A well-crafted, intriguing plot could have remedied this, but none of Anderson’s Resident Evil movies had that, so it should come as no surprise that this Monster Hunter movie doesn’t have it either.
One of the most persistent issues with Anderson as writer-director for Monster Hunter is that he’s still presenting this movie far too much like a Resident Evil movie. There are entire set pieces dedicated to dark, claustrophobic and horror-oriented monster kills, especially in the first half of the movie, which feels like the complete opposite of what the Monster Hunter video games are designed to deliver! The Monster Hunter games feel massive, presenting enormous foes across wide, treacherous terrain that forces players to engage these towering quarries out in the open. They’re the opposite of dark and claustrophobic!
It’s no wonder then that Anderson’s quick, dirty and well-worn Resident Evil movie formula doesn’t translate to Monster Hunter very effectively. Resident Evil is a horror game series, so those games are usually dark, claustrophobic and unpredictable, and that’s great, because it’s the style that Resident Evil’s genre thrives in. Monster Hunter however is bright, colourful and over-the-top, and a movie adaptation of Monster Hunter should fittingly feel bright, colourful and over-the-top! By inexplicably approaching Monster Hunter as a horror movie for its first half in particular though, Anderson commits a cardinal sin by making a Monster Hunter movie that feels small, and that’s the absolute wrong scale for a larger-than-life franchise like Monster Hunter!
It’s not until towards the climax that Monster Hunter starts feeling bigger and more ambitious, and by then, it’s far too late. To be fair, Anderson’s direction at least manages some fun moments here and there, whether it’s some of the cute rapport between lead stars, Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa, or a few admittedly cool monster hunting sequences during the second half. These are definitely not enough to do Monster Hunter justice though, especially when we have to slog through a first half that’s all about Jovovich’s lead U.S. Army Ranger being dropped into an alternate world with her forgettable platoon of redshirts.
Even Anderson’s script feels too shallow to make an impact, let alone his direction! As usual, Anderson’s frequent lead star and wife, Milla Jovovich is presented as if she’s acting her way through a demo reel of action cliches, while none of the other characters are properly fleshed out beyond their most basic of characteristics. Not even the movie’s tone is consistent, with Monster Hunter initially being presented as a horror movie, then evolving into a buddy comedy with monsters, and eventually into a Godzilla-esque monster movie. It’s a bunch of vaguely recognizable window dressing that never becomes a cohesive whole, thanks to Anderson’s writing and direction failing to fundamentally understand and adapt the Monster Hunter franchise. Needless to say, I wouldn’t hold your breath when it comes to expecting a legitimately faithful Monster Hunter movie adaptation here.
Monster Hunter’s score is composed by Paul Haslinger, who has worked with Anderson before on a number of his previous movies, including 2008’s Death Race remake, and 2017’s climactic Resident Evil movie, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Haslinger appears to take the idea of a video game adaptation quite literally in Monster Hunter as well, loading the score with heavy, lumbering synth that feels intentionally designed to mimic the style of a MIDI-flavoured vintage PlayStation soundtrack. It’s a competent score for the most part, but it’s also another thing that contributes to Monster Hunter feeling like a frustratingly small movie. A movie like this needs a bombastic, attention-grabbing soundtrack, preferably with a robust orchestra, and Haslinger’s scoring style can’t come close to that ideal here.
I imagine that I lost even more audio punch from having to watch Monster Hunter at home as well, considering that it first released at a time when all movie theatres were closed in the West, and they didn’t open again until Monster Hunter had made it to a regular home viewing window, months later. Even having to watch my screening at home however, I couldn’t help but wonder if something was off about the monster cries and environmental hazards throughout the ‘monster world’ that Jovovich’s Lt. Artemis gets dropped into. They sound fine enough, but they also lack a truly imposing punch. If anything, the audio seems to devote more attention to the impact of the smaller, creepier monsters that are exclusively designed to pick off Artemis’ army buddies.
After we’ve already been spoiled by colossal movies like those in Warner Bros.’ and Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse especially, Monster Hunter’s audio quality is definitely left wanting. Impacts from monster kills often feel disappointingly muted on a home speaker especially. Sure, some of the larger monsters like Diablos sound appropriately imposing when they do things like burst out of sand or ambush the protagonists in some other fashion, plus the big climax against a certain fan-favourite Monster Hunter quarry (yes, it’s exactly the one that fans would imagine) at least comes a lot closer to truly replicating the powerful audio that a movie like this should demand. Overall though, Monster Hunter’s sound design feels too unremarkable to stand out, and that only gets worse when most people in North America especially were ultimately given no real choice but to watch it in their homes.
About the one thing that even the most avid of Monster Hunter video game fans can probably agree on regarding the franchise’s ill-fated movie adaptation is the fact that at least the eponymous monsters look pretty good here. Familiar Monster Hunter quarries like Diablos and Nerscylla are well-detailed and appropriately imposing, presenting believable ecologies and satisfying deaths when they’re brought down by Artemis or The Hunter. There’s obviously only a handful of featured monsters from the Monster Hunter video games here, with Anderson predictably opting to prioritize the handful of most popular and recognized creatures in the franchise, but it definitely would have been nice if this movie at least had a wider variety of locations, rather than spending most of its runtime in the same boring desert environment.
Once Monster Hunter starts building towards its climax, that’s when it starts mixing up its environments and creature selection a bit more. This is also the point when Monster Hunter’s miniscule effects budget begins to become an issue though. The desert may be boring, but at least it’s a believable setting. Once Monster Hunter finally decides to start presenting itself more like its video game inspiration later on, it just starts to feel fake and artificial. Even the fan-favourite Palicos (yes, they’re here too) don’t manage to be convincing effects in the end, and that’s especially disappointing. The big monsters may look good, but that seems to be where most of the budget went, leaving nothing to effectively realize the world around these big beasties. This often kills Monster Hunter’s immersion factor completely, and will probably just leave franchise fans wishing that they were playing one of the Monster Hunter video games instead.
Monster Hunter is struggling to catch up with a video game movie market that’s quickly starting to abandon its formula. There are some good ideas sprinkled within this movie’s fairly lean runtime, but they don’t manage to come together into a truly satisfying odyssey. Instead, Monster Hunter almost deliberately ignores the advancements of video game adaptations by the turn of the 2020’s, instead trying to deliver a disposable B-movie that just won’t capture the attention of anyone that isn’t already invested in Monster Hunter as an overall franchise. Worse still is that those who do love the Monster Hunter video games will probably hate this failed movie adaptation of them, because it feels largely unfaithful to its source games, forcing in a needless alternate world hook that tries and fails to cram Monster Hunter’s world into the real world, a fool’s errand if ever there was one.
It goes to show that Anderson approached Monster Hunter with all the wrong priorities. Its scope is small when it should be large and far-reaching. The monsters are portrayed as the eldritch. claustrophobic threats of a horror movie, rather than the massive, magnificent cornerstones of a franchise that’s all about epic, over-the-top battles. Lastly, while the language barrier between Milla Jovovich’s Lt. Artemis and Tony Jaa’s unnamed Hunter has a decent amount of charm, it also doesn’t feel completely true to the highly co-operative spirit of the more recent Monster Hunter games especially, which can employ entire squads of players in tight coordination against their hugest, most dangerous threats.
Overall, Monster Hunter writer-director, Paul W.S. Anderson’s approach to video game movies just isn’t good enough anymore. That’s evident all throughout Monster Hunter, which unfortunately marks Sony Pictures’ latest failed franchise vehicle, pandemic or no. The good news though is that I’m certain Monster Hunter’s movie license will one day be rebooted and get another chance at a big screen Hollywood adaptation, a treatment that Resident Evil is now enjoying with an all-new live-action movie, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City scheduled for this November, which scrubs Anderson’s and Jovovich’s involvement, and resets the franchise’s live-action canon with an all-new cast and story set within a different universe.
If Anderson wants to remain involved with the production of video game movies, he’ll need to step his game up and aim higher. Either that, or maybe start mining some of the dormant, lesser-known Capcom franchises that don’t have such an enormous fanbase attached to them this point. Who knows, maybe Anderson can one day deliver that fantastic Lost Planet movie that someone, somewhere has to want… Right?
- Some charming rapport between Jovovich and Jaa
- The monster designs look pretty good
- Climax feels more true to the source games
- Pointless dimension-hopping angle that's extremely unfaithful to the source games
- Scale is far too small and unimpressive
- Barely any story or earnest character development