Monster Hunter (2020)

Behind our world, there is another.

It’s true; I’m a huge fan of kaiju cinema. So, it comes as no surprise to learn that I had an absolute blast with Monster Hunter. It’s the latest in a long line of hit and (mostly) miss Hollywood video game adaptations, but it also happens to be a big, loud CGI-heavy monster movie, effectively mixing elements of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi.

Written and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, best known for steering the Resident Evil (2002-17) film franchise, Monster Hunter gives audiences exactly what they’ve signed up to see: colossal computer-generated beasties, batshit crazy action, solid VFX, and a structure that fittingly reflects the film’s video game origins — characters move through ‘levels’ (different geographic locations) to defeat enormous gnarly creatures, with their motivations kept simple: survival!

And Anderson (who also serves as a producer on the film) seems to be perfectly fit for the task, having learned how to strip characters down to their base characteristics while navigating the video game movie genre with his Resident Evil installments. He knows and understands the territory and wholly plays to his strengths, never slowing down the pace for more than the bare minimum exposition — there’s no long-winded BS backstory about the lore of the ‘New World’ in which our protagonist finds herself trapped.

‘Try to keep up.’

Monster Hunter has been a passion project of Anderson’s since 2012, and it shows, as this may very well be his most polished, faithful (in terms of game-to-screen translations), and entertaining picture to date. It’s a lot more enjoyable and coherent than the last few Resident Evil chapters, that’s for sure! It’s just pure, daft escapist fun — and if you’re down with that, you’re in for a roaring good time!

Based on the 2004 Capcom role-playing video game series of the same name, Monster Hunter has a fairly straight-forward premise: while out in the desert searching for a group of missing soldiers, a United States Army Ranger, Natalie Artemis (Milla Jovovich), and her United Nations military team are pulled into a new world of menacing monsters and treacherous landscapes via a strange sandstorm portal. Alas, Artemis’ military companions don’t last very long in this foreign wasteland once they realize that their firearms are more-or-less ineffective against their monstrous new foe: a couple of troops are viciously massacred by the horned sand swimmer Diablos, while the savage spider-like Nerscylla peck off the remaining few, who hide out in their spooky subterranean nests for respite — there’s a great bit of body-horror here that’ll terrify anyone with an arachnid fear.

Alone and isolated in the remote dune expanse, Artemis soon runs into a man known simply as ‘Hunter’ (Tony Jaa); he’s a skilled yet stranded warrior who, after some physical reluctance, decides to aid the sole survivor, helping Artemis trek through the vast, hostile land and make her way to a distant sky tower, which seems to be the source of the storm and key to her return home.

Ong Split

Staying true to the popular Monster Hunter games, Anderson’s film succeeds in giving moviegoers a genuine feel for, and understanding of the IP — its characters, gameplay, and the otherworldly aesthetic. Anderson has worked closely with game developers (chiefly producer Ryozo Tsujimoto and games director Kaname Fujoka) to ensure that the series staples and fundamentals have been accurately translated and depicted on screen. The terrain is particularly alien (though shot in remote parts of South Africa and Namibia), while characters are named after skillsets and weapons (think Hunter and Axe) and advance or ’upgrade’ depending on their equipment and armor’s quality, allowing viewers to get a small taste of the gaming experience. The fearsome, formidable monsters are wonderfully animated and designed, too, and appear to be somewhat game accurate.

Sure, the script is silly and excessive, and features an explosive third act clash (our heroes standoff against winged fire-breather Rathalos) with enough booms, bangs, and fireballs to get even Michael Bay giddied; but, hey, it’s all part of the fun. Remember, this is a B-grade fantasy-action-adventure pitting man against behemoth — Monster Hunter knows exactly what type of film it is and makes no apologies about it, never taking itself too seriously. There is a heap of nifty game nods and references also, which fans of the source might appreciate — I dug the inclusion of Meowscular Chef (Aaron Beelner), the burly, eye-patch-wearing cat-like harvester, who, through his flirtatious interactions with Jovovich’s Artemis, adds a smidge of levity to his handful of scenes.

Anyone wanna train this dragon?

General production on Monster Hunter is surprisingly top-notch, for a film of this ilk anyway, with the pulsating electro score by Paul Haslinger, in his fourth collaboration with Anderson, being a particular standout. If there’s one gripe with the general filmmaking, it’s that the frantic editing by Doobie White, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016), sometimes makes the over-the-top action difficult to follow. And, really, characters, although they’re distinctive, lack any intrinsic growth, even if overall performances are game and committed.

Mila Jovovich, the wife of Anderson and star of his Resident Evil saga, handles the action stuff with ease, possessing the type of physicality and bad-ass attitude required for this sort of part. Asian martial arts sensation Tony Jaa, of Ong Bak fame, does well with the fight scenes, too, and while the chemistry between Jovovich and Jaa is cheesy AF, their prickly interplay is amusing and sweet — it’s an offbeat pairing, but it totally works. Hellboy (2004) star Ron Perlman also pops up as The Admiral, leader of a talented team of expert monster killers, but is saddled with a somewhat thankless role, not given much to do.

Monster Hunter — which has been co-produced by Toho, creators of the King of Monsters, Godzilla — will certainly scratch the itch for Godzilla buffs everywhere, who missed out on getting to see the radioactive reptile square off against King Kong last year in Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs. Kong (thanks for that, COVID-19)! It’s also quite accessible, and will appeal to audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the material, along with those acquainted with Anderson’s unique brand of genre filmmaking. For a PG-13 picture, though, this one’s pretty violent, so parental discretion is advised.

‘Hey, you got a bigger sword?’

Wrapping up with a blatant sequel hook, Anderson is clearly hoping that Monster Hunter kick starts a brand new franchise, given that his Resident Evil series is well and truly dusted. And, honestly, I’d happily track down a Monster Hunter pic every two or so years if the quality can remain this consistent.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)

Monster Hunter is released through Sony Pictures Australia