The cold open to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter involves a not-quite-good-looking CGI desert landscape which is sculpted by a pirate ship (that rides on the seas of sand) and a semi-visually-defined monster roughly the same size as that ship. Following this scene (not so much an establishment of this fantasy world as a shotgun blast propelling us backwards into it), we find ourselves in a recognizable setting. A military squadron saddles up their humvee and sets course, speaking in generalized hoo-rah jargon in a scene which establishes basic character types. One of them is a jokester. One of them is the hard-as-nails commanding officer. One of them looks longingly at a picture of his family back home.
The movie is called Monster Hunter. No one ever said it was going to be subtle.
Suddenly (inexplicably, one might say), the squadron is caught up in a storm which lands them in a barren desert landscape (like the one from the previous scene. Hm…). It does not take long before they are chased by a large horned beast (a monster, if you will). They put up a good fight, but the creature quickly thins their number to four (Milla Jovovich, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, and T.I.). As they continue to get hounded by various monsters, a lone archer (Tony Jaa) attempts to protect them from afar.
Monster Hunter is based on the popular video game series created by Kaname Fujioka. I have only played one installment of this franchise very briefly. The one thing I can say is it was a gorgeous looking game with great monster designs. W.S. Anderson’s film, on the other hand, strikes a strange balance of looking like a video game without ever reaching the high aesthetic benchmark of the video games it is replicating. Some of the creature designs do have a panache to them (but also many of them are just giant spiders). And they exist within a green screen universe that looks so rubbery and slick in establishing shots that immersion into this fantasy environment is a constant struggle.
This isn’t to say I despise the look of the film. The more granular Anderson and DP Glen MacPherson get with the camera the more I can appreciate the visceral survival aesthetic that Anderson is going for. This is, after all, a survival action-adventure film at its core. It should feel tactile, and it does when the camera is getting as close as it possibly can to real life objects. But that doesn’t help action sequences, which rely on the grand scale of the world’s creatures to function effectively.
And these action set pieces are endless and repetitive. Given that most of the film focuses on the one horned monster and a horde of oversized spiders, there is only so much variety that these sequences can offer. One of these set pieces experiments with sound design in a vaguely intriguing way, but it still looks strikingly similar to the other two sequences involving that same monster.
The best set piece, in fact, does not involve a CGI monster at all. The action/buddy comedy meet-cute between Jovovich and Jaa involves hand-to-hand combat which is fairly well-choreographed. It helps that Jaa has an athleticism to his actions which is electrifying to watch. But put that athleticism against a green screen backdrop where he stabs a sword into the gaping maw of a monster, and it loses some of that intensity.
Though the film has its charms. Jovovich and Jaa do conjure a decent chemistry for two characters who rarely speak and do not speak the same language. There is a mangy, feral-looking “palico” cat whose backstory I assume is insanely intriguing (for the record, the palicoes are much cuter in the video games). Ron Perlman pops in as a disheveled monster hunter with a wild mane of hair. He exists to be an exposition dump, but his wild appearance is enough for me. And I kind of adore the score from Paul Haslinger, which sounds perfectly video gamey (Haslinger has worked on a number of video game soundtracks).
More than anything else, Monster Hunter suffers from a lack of imagination. For being based on a video game series filled with monsters of various shapes and sizes, to choose giant spiders, a demon-looking creature, and a prototypical dragon as your main baddies is simply an uninspired approach. And the film rarely emerges from this unimaginative space; instead, it is a largely visual piece whose aesthetic is bland and whose visuals are repetitive.
Monster Hunter: C-
As always, thanks for reading!