From Mortal Kombat to the Resident Evil franchise, writer/director Paul W. S. Anderson has consistently proven himself to be the king of videogame adaptations. He is able to take beloved properties and mold them into entertaining narratives that encapsulate their ethos and are accessible to both franchise fans and novices alike. This is no different with Anderson’s latest film, Monster Hunter, adapted from the popular Capcom franchise. He continues to create larger-than-life narratives that are just plain old fun.
Monster Hunter begins with Lieutenant Natalie Artemis (the always badass Milla Jovovich) leading a team of soldiers in the desert, searching for a missing squad that seemingly disappeared without a trace. The group is suddenly transported into another world via an intense lightning storm. This is a relentless place, full of massive monsters who are out for blood. No matter their firepower, nothing seems to stop Diablos, a giant triceratops-like creature, or the Nerscylla, a nasty group of poisonous spiders the size of elephants. The tools of violence of the US military are rendered useless in the face of these titans. The soldiers cannot just blast their enemies away with the pull of a trigger, and are instead faced with the reality that having the biggest guns does not make you the apex predator. Their reliance on gunpowder and explosives ultimately leads to their downfall, as nothing can stop the rampaging Diablos.
As they realize that their guns will do nothing to save them, the soldiers quickly fall one by one at the hands—and horns—of these monsters. In the swift elimination of the squadron, Anderson again makes a statement about the futility of the military and how the sudden removal of power leaves them extremely vulnerable. Their inability to survive leaves Artemis alone, until she meets the Hunter (Thai martial artist Tony Jaa). After some well-choreographed fight sequences, the two develop a rather sweet friendship. While they don’t speak the same language, they both quickly learn how to communicate with one another effectively enough to develop a plan to escape the Diablos and find their respective ways home. There are monsters, there are explosions and there is Ron Perlman with beautifully feathered hair. This is a film that is all about spectacle. There is no need to ask questions or wonder about certain aspects of the plot: This is another dimension populated with monsters, that’s all you need to know. Monster Hunter asks you to let every fantastical second wash over you.
Monsters aside, the film ventures into a buddy action-comedy as much of the story focuses on Artemis and the Hunter’s developing relationship—and how they depend on one another for survival. They laugh, they joke, they make sacrifices for one another. Jovovich and Jaa make a remarkable team: The chemistry between the two actors is an endearing light in the middle of a gritty and violent film where humans are impaled and eaten. Anderson does not just rely on the monsters, but creates strong human relationships to encourage a deeper engagement than expected with a videogame adaptation.
Monster Hunter is a film for any audience member ready to watch a violent showdown between man and beast—there is no need to be familiar with the games to enjoy it. Instead of placing the film entirely in the realm of monsters, Anderson chooses to show the transition from our world to another in order to situate newcomers and have it feel like they are experiencing the same discoveries at Artemis (the audience surrogate literally thrown into this new world). Devout fans of the franchise will love the fan service, such as the absolutely ripped Meowscular cat chef called a Palico, and recognize all of the monsters from various missions.
But rather than just creating something that follows the games’ rather lighthearted tone, Anderson leans heavily into body horror elements that make these monsters all the more terrifying. As the audience is not actively playing the game and experiencing the adrenaline rush from dodging monsters, Anderson compensates with dangerous, bursting egg sacks and nasty webs full of dead bodies.
To further emphasize that feeling of dread, Anderson and cinematographer Glenn MacPherson play with scale and perspective, sometimes even shifting into a first-person POV often utilized in videogames. The camerawork is surprisingly impressive as we deftly move from gorgeous wide shots of expansive desert to a monster’s POV. There’s something so jarring yet satisfying about briefly embodying the perspective of the antagonist. For the majority of the film, these creatures are shown in full to truly illustrate their scale. But when those wide shots suddenly collapse into first-monster POV, it becomes apparent that Anderson is manipulating typical action movie conventions. Just because these monsters are “the bad guys” doesn’t mean the camera can’t slip into their view. It almost evokes a sense of empathy, making the audience feel upset at the deaths of these creatures—after all, they’re just trying to survive like Artemis and the Hunter. However, as this is a big action romp, these very brief shifts in POV are simply cool camera tricks that are the cherry on top of this visual feast.
The ending teases the beginning of a new franchise, which is a delightful possibility. There’s plenty of potential for which monsters they’ll include—such as the flying ice elemental Legiana or adorable cloud bats called Paolumu. And, of course, they’ll need to get a better understanding of this strange portal between worlds. The world of Monster Hunter is an embarrassment of riches, ripe for Anderson’s picking. Monster Hunter reiterates that Jovovich and Anderson are action movie royalty and that they aren’t stepping down from that throne any time soon. With giant swords and a pirate ship that sails the seven sands, this is the film we needed at the end of 2020. Monster Hunter punctuates a year full of sadness with a glimmer of joy—an explosive blockbuster that reminds us of the beauty of no-holds-barred action cinema. There’s no need to think—only gasp, laugh, and cheer.
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Writer: Paul W. S. Anderson
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, Tip “T. I.” Harris, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung, Ron Perlman
Release Date: December 18, 2020
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.