Gondolas are cool, aren't they?
Content Warning: Monster Hunter (2020) contains detailed depictions of arachnid-like creatures and their behavior that would be potentially distressing and triggering to arachnophobes.
Ever since the prospect of a movie based on the Monster Hunter series was announced a few years ago, I knew that the production was doomed from the start. Regardless of what the movie’s quality was going to be, I also already knew I was going to watch it anyway out of pure obligation.
Finally getting around to watching the movie, months after its release at the end of 2020, I was hoping for the bare minimum of what could have been a “so-bad-it’s-good” experience. Instead, the Paul W. S. Anderson joint was anything but, somehow managing to exceed my expectations by making a story about fighting giant monsters deeply unmemorable! Curiosity may have killed some cats (and Palicoes), but in this case, I was bored to death instead.
Monster Hunter takes us through its opening credits within a sequence of swirling, flashing blue lights and flames, all set against a cacophony of noise that sounds like a brewing storm. This sequence takes us to an uncredited quote that says,
“IT IS ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT BEHIND THE PERCEPTION OF OUR SENSES, NEW WORLDS ARE HIDDEN OF WHICH WE ARE TOTALLY UNAWARE.”
Like a warning sign posted against a wired, electric fence, that alone should have convinced me to turn around — but I had to be strong.
Some of the words fade away while a few of them linger on the screen, slowly moving towards the lower-thirds of the frame to form the phrase,“The New World”, and indicating the movie’s current location. The sights and sounds we were subjected to unfold unto a ship being terrorized by not only a desert’s storm, but by a giant wyvern beast that thrashes it. The members onboard are all dressed in garb that Monster Hunter players would identify, all while Ron Perlman sticks out like a sore thumb just because he’s Ron Perlman. One character in particular is even meant to be a reference to Monster Hunter: World’s Handler but I can confirm that she does nothing significant in the movie at all when she later reappears and definitely only served the purpose of being a cameo to try to appease World players. Later verified to be Diablos, the beast continues its tirade, soon tossing one of the ship’s men overboard and to be left behind in the sands.
All this happens against a very generic, but also extremely repetitive EDM-inspired track that sounds like something that would be typically used in Twitch streaming interstitials and video editing sizzle reels. But then I realized: oh no. This is the movie’s main theme is it? I’m going to hear this repeatedly throughout this thing am I? And unfortunately, I did. Whatever this song is, it epitomizes the rest of the movie’s utterly bland soundtrack that sounds like it only sourced action-themed albums from stock libraries. And of course, not a single piece of the music heard in this movie sounds like something you would hear in the Monster Hunter games!
Through this opening sequence alone — from the Handler character, to the off-kilter beats, and a quote that later unravels a plotline based on many-worlds theory completely detached from this movie’s source material — this film was not made for the love of Monster Hunter, but merely the idea of it.
The movie further genericizes what could have been an interesting universe with compelling characters by throwing in something that needs to pop in every big US action movie: the military. We now enter a view of our own contemporary world, following a unit of military vehicles trekking through a (totally different) desert on a mission, seeking out fellow soldiers who have gone missing. The movie wants to make it really clear to us that this is no ordinary pack—don’t worry! They’re actually United Nations Peacekeepers. They’re better(?)! (They’re not.)
Milla Jovovich plays Natalie Artemis, the captain of this squad and she pretty much is the only real character with any thread of a personality. After moments of useless and barely meaningful character development across the group and a cringey cadence call — jumping around from guy who has nothing to say but constant, unfunny one-liner jokes to another guy boasting about his kill streak — the caravan gets thrown into a tizzy after one of the unit members noticed a bunch of strange stone markers towering around the desert. The markers light up and the group gets thrown into a swirling vortex of blue lights and flames, recalling the visuals of the opening sequence that transports them into the Monster Hunter world. They quickly realize that the creatures they start to encounter cannot just easily be shot down with their big army guns.
Artemis’ squad soon gets overwhelmed by a swarm of giant, spider-like creatures and everyone but her dies (so the utter lack of effort to put character into any of these people does pay off, I suppose). She gets fatally impaled by one herself, but soon wakes up in a nest, finding her comrades’ corpses cocooned in the creatures’ webs. Some may be able to recognize that these creatures are based on Nerscylla, a giant arachnid that debuted in Monster Hunter 4, but as with the rest of the monster depictions in the film, many of these beasts follow surface concept only and are nothing but a disappointment to series fans.
For instance, as Artemis tries to find her way out of this rather gnarly situation that feels more like something taken out of a horror sci-fi setting than something that belongs in Monster Hunter, she runs into one of her mates who appears to have survived. Unfortunately for him, it is all too late because his body has already been implanted with Nerscylla eggs. They begin to hatch out of his skin, which seems more inspired by parasitic aliens and the Widowers from The Mist, and is not at all something that is reflective of what Nerscylla does in the games. Artemis manages to make it through the ordeal and escapes the arachnids’ lair, albeit now all by herself, weaponless, and hungry.
Although Monster Hunter ultimately does not comment much on the military specifically, it does speak volumes that we have to start rooting for the survival of this character type when centering one of them as our main protagonist. By defining these characters in the beginning as “Peacekeepers”, the movie probably wanted to tiptoe around the military representation issue due to the more recent, much needed, and public growing discourse over the US military’s role in the world, but not even really doing anything specific with what the Peacekeepers actually do — all while ignoring their own issues.
The use of a military person as a foundational base for Artemis’ character also misunderstands the philosophy behind the hunters in the games, which does not revolve around the hypermasculine symbols that the film makes them out to be. In the games, there is a rationale provided to monsters’ behaviors and why the culture of hunting functions the way it does. But instead, the movie goes out of its way to enhance the more terrifying features of the creatures to further embolden the characters’ aggression to kill them.
It wants to stress that the main selling point of Monster Hunter is its violence, when personally, I found that the best part of the movie was in a much later sequence where Artemis is able to find reprieve and a brief moment of bonding with another character in an oasis. The most accurate image of what Monster Hunter is actually like was not a moment riddled with action and violence, but a meditative moment of cooking and eating that best exemplifies the game’s essence of comradery.
At the very least: I will genuinely commend Jovovich’s performance: not only does she command her scenes as a level-headed leader, she also manages to portray someone who has just freshly gone through some horrific trauma really well. After all of her only allies have died, she is left alone to venture across this strange place knowing there are even more huge beasts roaming around, making the odds to her own survival almost null. She strongly knows how to show that she has been bruised, and deeply shaken, especially following the gross Nerscylla sequence.
But we are about halfway through Monster Hunter’s running time, and as something that still conveys nothing of a remotely accurate experience to the games, it is hard not to see this was something made in jest for sadists who just want to see Milla Jovovich suffer.
Simply referred as the “Hunter” (because we never learn what his actual name is), Artemis finally runs into the deuteragonist: the man tossed off the ship in the film’s opening. They inevitably butt heads, unsure if the other is to be treated as a threat. Despite language barriers, the two eventually not only realize they are on equal wavelengths when it comes to physical strength, but that they also were both separated from their homes respectively. At this point, Artemis finally concludes that the blue tempest teeming in the distance was key to what teleported her to this world, and one training montage and gallery showcase of all the Monster Hunter equipment they could reference later, the two work together to take down the Diablos prowling across the desert’s sands standing in their way.
However, something about the interaction between Artemis and the Hunter occasionally reads as iffy in addition to how the rest of the hunters are also depicted. Monster Hunter clearly wants to hammer the idea into us that in spite of Artemis and the Hunter coming from two very different backgrounds, they both respect each other’s differences and individual capabilities. Regardless, the dynamic between the two still mirrors the archetype of a “civilized” person learning from a lesser “primitive” person.
At some point, Artemis presents chocolate to the Hunter, and he reacts shocked after tasting it, as if chocolate was not something every culture had in early human history anyway. In this movie, the people of the New World are depicted as if they are unfamiliar and naive to basic concepts revolving around Artemis and her world, which contradicts how advanced and synonymous the hunters’ societies are in the games to our own reality. Chocolate certainly exists within the splayed buffets of the mouth-watering food sequences that are the pride and joy of the games! This incidentally ties into Artemis’ place as a military person educating someone with something benign such as chocolate from a “different” culture. What’s worse is my own inability to escape the visual context of the actors themselves: Tony Jaa, a long active stuntman, martial artist, and the Hunter’s actor, is a brown skinned Southeast Asian man acting the foil to Jovovich, a white woman.
The Hunter reunites with his own crew and although they are all cautious of Artemis at first, Ron Perlman—who at this point is made clear to be their leader, known as the “Admiral”—steps in as the first character in this world that speak Artemis’ language, all while providing the most exposition this movie has ever had in all of its two hours.
The Admiral discusses how Artemis was not the first to have crossed into their world, alluding to the soldiers that her group was originally seeking out at the opening of the film. He then goes into this totally made up lore only specific to this movie and nothing else in any other Monster Hunter piece of media ever, explaining that the portal between their worlds is conjured by some ancient technology known as the Sky Tower and that roaming monsters serve to protect this obelisk. Why was this Sky Tower made in the first place? Why are the monsters protecting it? None of this is ever explained or revisited! We are near the end of the film at this point.
This piece of information is also the most grave injustice against the movie’s source material, in which monsters are completely natural phenomena that have naturally evolved within and are tied with the very confines of nature. The hunting industry exists to keep an eye on these creatures so they do not completely imbalance the world’s biodiversity.
With this new knowledge, Artemis tries to help in the slaying of the Rathalos—the game franchise’s most iconic monster, that is definitely not supposed to be able to survive in a desert—in an effort to help the hunters’ initiative to tap into the Tower’s mysteries. In the midst of the fight, she gets briefly yoinked back into her original world, but then quickly gets zapped back to The New World anyway, realizing her new calling in life is to become a fellow hunter. This cements that the Monster Hunter movie is another thing to throw in the unstoppably growing genre that is isekai. After that, another monster comes the crew’s way, as it is being observed by a mysterious, hooded figure from afar, serving as both the ending to this disaster and as a hook for a sequel that hopefully never happens.
It is a bit redundant at this point to say that Monster Hunter the movie is a hugely inaccurate interpretation of the video game series it is based on, but it even failed to capture my attention in such a way that would make it enjoyable. The movie’s inaccuracies to the game series can easily be ignored, but it unfortunately does not detract from the fact that much of the film’s duration was a snoozefest, being a disservice to a series about expanse and exploration any more than any piece of newly invented lore can do to disrespect that. By tacking on new elements in an effort to make the flick more serviceable to audiences unfamiliar with the games, it made the IP less interesting by watering it down as another forgettable action movie.
Much of the movie’s marketing seemed to specifically frame itself around the opening (in which again, a majority of those characters get killed off and thus rendered irrelevant) and the climactic battle with Rathalos. Although the appearance of the fan-favorite Meowscular Chef is perhaps the one thing in this movie’s marketing that actually wasn’t misleading bait, the movie’s flaws are magnified even further given that this was the only Palico character represented. Despite being such a notable, largely visible species that is popular in the games’ community, the movie could not afford to at least throw in one more cat because they likely expended so much of their budget for the monster CGI.
Even the movie’s goofy editing could not make it more interesting, with constant quick zoom-ins and artificial camera shakes clearly added in post-production to intensify scenes in an effort to take away from the fact that much of the cast had to act and wave weapons against a non-existent monster. This editing style is not unique to Monster Hunter and is certainly a problem in many action films, but it cements the movie as simply another generic action movie with an even more generic soundtrack.
As is, this could have easily gotten away boasting itself to have been done by a ragtag collective of a bunch of Monster Hunter cosplayers filming a fan project at a Capcom pop-up event. But instead of getting a messy package that conveyed the gist of a series that can be still wondrous and satisfying in spite of the cruelty that exists within reason, all we got was a world that seems endlessly dark, dull, and empty, hellbent on killing things for unclear motives.
Capcom has not been shy about letting eager studios adapt their IPs into all sorts of media, whether it’d be through anime or live-action movies — for better or for worse. Director Anderson himself has a track record of adapting video games such as the first Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive movie adaptations respectively, but he has found way more positive reception with his handling of Capcom’s own Resident Evil. Casting Jovovich, his wife (a recurring expression of their union throughout much of his filmography), as the central protagonist in this loose interpretation of the eponymous franchise, Anderson found success developing a narrative detached from the original games.
So it does make sense that he was to be trusted with another Capcom property — Monster Hunter — one of which that he claims was a very personal “passion project” to deal with after single handedly expressing interest in adapting the series to the company directly. But despite his claims that he has been a longtime admirer of the series, my experience viewing the movie implies the complete opposite. The Monster Hunter movie does not read like a love letter penned by someone who has a strong understanding of the themes of the series, but instead reads more like a collage of elements from the games that have been haphazardly pasted together with very superficial thought as to why.
I did not have high expectations for Paul W. S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter. But at the very least, I was hoping that something fun could have been salvaged to add on to the ever continuing notoriety of bad video game movie adaptations.
As much as it is cited as the Holy Grail of “bad” video game adaptations, I actually really love the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie. Both Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo are a joy apart, and together they made a power duo as the titular Italian plumber brothers, all while Dennis Hopper was performing what could have been a character in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element years later through his strange portrayal of King Koopa, AKA Bowser. All of these elements and more set against a dirty, twisted, sci-fi punk iteration of New York City where the sewers are above ground makes for a great ride, but a ride you are stuck belted into and would debate about experiencing again. In fact, a better version of the movie could have existed if it weren’t for constant executive failures and a dated, deeply cynical view of children and video game players. Instead, what we got was this huge middle finger to what is otherwise a cartoonishly innocent Nintendo property that probably horrified the original 90s kids in all of the movie theaters. And to me, that is incredible.
Films like Mortal Kombat: Annihilation will forever be remembered and gawked at for its poor acting and writing, among many other things. The 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog movie starring Ben Schwartz and Jim Carrey will be cited at some point for breaking the Internet for a hot second. What may even cement its legacy even further is being remembered in many individuals’ lives as one of the last movies they have seen in theaters before the COVID-19 pandemic worsened that same year.
Monster Hunter, however, has none of that appeal or notoriety to have a longstanding place in games or movie history. Besides an incident that revolved around an awkward, accidentally racist joke that no longer exists in the movie’s final cut — let alone from a character that doesn’t even survive past the film’s beginning — Monster Hunter’s minute issues are not even that noteworthy or unique enough to stir any meaningful discussion around it.
Because it truly had nothing to imprint upon us at all, Paul W. S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter brought neither thrill and not even much misery, only leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of hardcore Monster Hunter fans grimacing that it existed at some point if they ever remember it. In time, the movie will be tucked further in the back of the (arguably) auteur’s large track record with much louder titles more worthy of investing time to mull over. Although Anderson may have failed to leave a strong impression with Monster Hunter, at the very least, we have his version of Resident Evil’s Albert Wesker to take in stride.