Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter ★★½

In the comfort of our own homes, we can load up video games to freely enter new worlds full of wonders and terrors that would be unprecedented on Earth. One such game series is Monster Hunter, in which players scour a fantasy world and kill every living thing in it. Paul W.S. Anderson was so moved by the games that he sought to adapt it for the big screen over the past eight years. The film finally dropped at the peak of Monster Hunter World's hype, promising a hard-edged action-movie experience that pits one tough-as-nails soldier woman against dragons and stuff.

The Monster Hunter film starts off with a glimpse of the "New World" as a pirate ship coasts on sand dunes (I dunno why this works, just roll with it) and a bunch of monster hunters are attacked by...well, monsters. Meanwhile, a bunch of soldiers on Earth drive around the desert and become caught in a storm that warps them into the "New World." Surprise, they're all attacked by monsters. When Captain Artemis (Milla Jovovich) becomes the last soldier standing, she struggles to communicate with a local hunter (Tony Jaa) so they can team up and work together to survive and find a way back home. The journey back to Earth becomes a grade more complicated when a group of scrappy sand-pirate-people raise a fuss about the two worlds comingling and monsters possibly crossing over and such, so what's a band of stranded monster hunters to do?

Similar in tone and style to Anderson's Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, the film aims to be dark, gritty, aggressive--many would compare both films to Mad Max: Fury Road, but neither has the sublimity or storytelling nuance of Miller's film. With Monster Hunter, it feels far less like a blockbuster and more of a polished B-movie thanks to the limited scope of production. This is literally just Jovovich and Jaa (and maybe a few others) running around a desert, squaring off against CGI monsters. From looks alone, I can't see much of the budget going into exotic locations or scene variety. Much of it likely went towards the special effects (maybe some cash thrown at Jovovich, the prop department, and the cinematographers). In this scant backdrop, the film focuses so much attention on flashy action with a threadbare adventure story, and it reminds me way more of older, lesser-known B-movies with similar formulas--like, for instance, Stryker, Mindwarp, Defon-4, Deathsport, Exterminators of the Year 3000. Compared to those, Monster Hunter seems way more awesome by comparison.

The story seems derivative, and I'm still not quite sold on the low-fantasy angle it aims for. I would have been pretty happy if the film chose to dip itself into the "New World" entirely with zero Earth settings or characters, especially if care was taken in fleshing out a living, breathing world. Nope--the film insists on ham-fisting some Earth characters into this, as if filmmakers couldn't trust us to accept the New World on its own merits (but let's be honest, the real reason is because Anderson wanted to push Jovovich to the spotlight, into the same old mold as a gritty action heroine with cool guns and jeeps and such). After the first act, I found this movie a little more interesting as it pairs off the leads and they share some cute moments of levity and chemistry--nothing original though. There are a few twists towards the end that come off as contrived and stupid, but it eventually segues into a spectacular finale where monster hunters combat a large dragon in the midst of a storm--it's surprisingly the coolest part of the movie.

It's really not the best script ever. Dialogue is often bland, blunt, and cliched. Character motivations are fickle, save for Jovovich, who exists mostly to be a tough. Her character endures a few painful-looking fights and challenges, but it amounts to very little in the end when she somehow survives big explosions in every fight. She might just quality as a Mary Sue. What hurts the most though is that her character has no arc. Despite some bursts of personality, she has no depth or development. Tony Jaa's character is no better, and most of the others exist as mere spider fodder. This story is told conventionally with no real surprises.

You know what you're getting with Jovovich--she's just as badass here as she in the entire Resident Evil series. I found Jaa likable, but sadly, this still feels like just another checkbox in a growing list of wasted opportunities. Every other performance is horrid--another reason why I chose to compare this to a bad Mad Max knockoff. Where the film tries to redeem itself is in its style--with a heavily desaturated tone that emphasizes a blue and grey world, the film exudes grit through its barren landscapes, dirt-covered costumes, rusty weapons, and wicked monster designs. Editing is rapid, but thankfully the camera's reasonably still--it winds up resembling the style of a skateboard video this way. Sound design struck me as average, but it doesn't help that the music score is an abrasive blend of orchestral swells and electronic noise.

Given the weak writing, acting, and surprisingly small scope of the film, I can't help but to compare it to the cheap schlock of previous decades, which were also filmed in the desert with little care given to the stories or quality. This is simply more expensive schlock, whipped together to satisfy the director's own vanity. Understandably, it's a drag for most audiences. I have to admit though, there are moment I thought were fairly entertaining, especially with the finale. And I've always been a sucker for watching Jovovich in action roles. Take it as a modern B-movie, and it's on-par with others like it.


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