Over the last few years, I was teaching a class I called Japan and World Cinema, and in that class I introduced to my students many movies from around the world based on Japanese cultural properties while examining issues like Japanese stereotypes, yellow-face, whitewashing, etc—as well as just looking at how different countries and their particular cultural outlook might affect how a story is told. I made it a point last year in this class to delve deeper into movies based on Japanese video games, and thus caught up on the Street Fighter movies, the Silent Hill films, and even lesser-known fare such as the (very, very bad) King of Fighters film and Tekken: Kazuya’s Revenge (also terrible). Unfortunately, most movies based on Japanese video games (or rather video games in general) tend to be quite poor, with weak stories, cheesy special effects, and an insulting slapdash quality to them. Still, recent entries like Detective Pikachu (which I reviewed) and Sonic the Hedgehog have garnered some level of financial and critical success, combining some impressive special effects with charming (if still somewhat pedestrian) plots. While I was not ecstatic about either of the above films, I enjoyed each for what they were—the Pokemon film obviously had a lot of love and care put into its fantasy world and characters, and the Sonic film showed an astonishing degree of humility and a sense of responsibility towards the fanbase when the studio actually caved-in to fan demands calling for the Sonic design to be reworked. There was, then, reason to hold onto some hope for a higher level of quality in video game adaptations moving forward based on these successes.
Then along came Monster Hunter, and much of that hope was dashed. The film was released in the USA back in December of 2020, but not here in Japan until March 26, 2021, so I was well aware of its negative reputation before I had my chance to see it. And, even though I can say that the film has its charms, the bad reputation is deserved.
Let’s start with the plot. The film opens with a ship traveling through the sands of a desert as if they are the waves of the sea, hounded by a monster called Black Diablos that can swim through the dunes. One of the warriors on the ship is thrown off, and the rest… well, they seem doomed, too. We then jump to a team of American military zooming around in a nondescript desert looking for their missing compatriots who have recently disappeared. Our protagonist group is basically called A team, and B team are the ones who vanished in the sands. A team, led by Artemis (Milla Jovovich, who isn’t given a name until the movie is almost over), is sucked through a portal into a parallel desert world of monsters, where they find the remains of B team burned to a crisp. Artemis and her bland crew of soldiers soon find themselves facing the Black Diablos that had been chasing the sand-ship from the opening sequence, and after suffering a number of casualties, our boring heroes take refuge in a rocky area and are further whittled down by a huge nest of spider-like nasties, the Nerscyclla. Captain manages to escape (just barely), but then comes into conflict with one of the natives—Hunter (the amazing Tony Jaa, in a thankless role). At first Captain and Hunter don’t trust one another, but in order to reach their respective goals (Hunter wants to find his compatriots, Captain wants to get back to her home), they unite and fight against the Black Diablos and the Nerscyclla swarms from before. But even with their considerable fighting skill and weapons, do they stand a chance against the seemingly impossible odds that stand against them?
The story, written by director Paul W. S. Anderson, predictably does not follow the video games very closely. Much like the money-making but critically maligned Resident Evil series of films, Anderson takes some of the characters and settings and monsters from the games and recrafts them around a new narrative centered on his wife Milla Jovovich so that she can look cool and kick all sorts of hinder all over the screen. Also like those Resident Evil films, there is very little plot at all to hold things together—let alone character depth or much likability.
Before I go any further, just let me say, I don’t think that any movie adaptation should be expected to slavishly stay true to the source material. I have been known to get frustrated with movies that change things (such as with the awful Attack on Titan duology), but in principle I acknowledge that a movie adaptation should be recognized as its own thing and can function as its own thing, even with drastic changes. That said, Anderson’s story here does NOT function effectively at all on its own merits. The entire set-up feels thimble-depth—if the thimble had holes. The military in the desert—we aren’t really given an explanation of where they are, or why they are really there. We get a longitude and a latitude, but no real sense of place or mission beyond “we need to find our missing comrades.” Wherever they are, that background has absolutely no relevance to the story whatsoever—they could have been in the fields of Iowa and it wouldn’t really affect the story. This disregard of place hurts the story and drains it of a sense of meaning and significance. The movie simply feels unashamedly artless, lacking any meaningful themes, and possesses a sheen of emptiness that doesn’t go away even as we get to know the characters.
The characters barely have names, and any sparks of personality also feel forced. Captain Artemis is tough and she has a wedding ring that she kisses a few times, but we never meet her significant other, and we know nothing of her relationship with him (or her?). The rest of her crew are all killed off in the first act of the story, so we never have any time to get attached to them. Hunter is served better, as Tony Jaa manages to imbue his warrior-character (think prehistoric Hawkeye basically) with a surprising gravitas and honesty even though we never get a full translation of what he is saying. (Amusingly, in the Japanese version, he only gets subtitles when he says the names of the monsters, or occasionally when he learns an English word—which was helpful for me because I wasn’t always able to catch his pronunciation.) Later, Hellboy’s Ron Perlman plays as a wise leader with a big stick (so to speak), but while I generally love Perlman, here he felt like he was going through the motions, and the motions given him by the script are pretty insubstantial anyway.
What about the action? Most viewers go into this sort of a film not exactly looking for deep character motivations or thoughtful themes anyway, so if the action is exciting, many people will be satisfied. I would say that the action sequences are not a complete loss, but they were still disappointing. One issue for me at least was that, since the characters were established so poorly, I was not invested much in the ensuing chaos. As for the fights, Jovovich and Jaa are both given ample opportunity to fight and blast and blow things up, so those looking for fights certainly will get them, and the monsters, too, are frequently front and center. The monsters look great, too, with a sense of scale and ferocity on the screen that should be lauded. The Rathalos that appears later in the movie especially gets some fantastic money shots.
But those shots, as good as they sometimes look, are edited together like they are part of a cacophony. The sense of artlessness or just devil-may-care, l-just-want-to-be-done extends to the action scenes, which I felt were edited together with a weedwhacker, rarely given a chance to breathe, with lots of quick cuts and reverberating slow-mo crammed in as a weak replacement for dramatic weight or tension that might be built up with more thoughtful sequential editing. I wanted to action to be so much better, and while I did enjoy the occasional blast and boom, I left the theater feeling mostly gloom, so to speak.
Music, too, is a huge disappointment, eschewing the orchestral music from the games and replacing it with a repetitive electronic fizzle from Paul Haslinger (Rainbow Six Siege, Wildling) that felt bereft of life or tone. I got so tired of hearing the same urgent riff again and again and just wanted variety and spice. I wondered if Anderson and his cohorts felt that a movie based on a videogame just needed an electronic score, and it disgruntled me.
Circling back to the beginning of my review, because I had been teaching my Japan and World Cinema class the last few years, I couldn’t help but ponder a bit about the changes made in the story and how they might reflect something of the culture from which the movie was made. The Monster Hunter movie has already become a lightning rod of negative attention due to a careless line about Chinese and knees that upset mainland Chinese citizens so much the movie was pulled from theaters over there and the line was cut—including from the version I saw in Japan. This despite the fact that the Chinese studio TenCent worked on the movie. Obviously screenwriter-director Anderson must have been concerned that American audiences would need an American setting and team to connect with the narrative, changing the story into an isekai and potentially alienating many fans. I hesitate to call any of this “whitewashing,” though—the original property was set in a fantasy world, and was never meant to represent Japan. Plus the movie goes out of its way to cast characters from different racial backgrounds (including a token Japanese in the form of Hirona Yamazaki, who was in the charming Orange from 2015 and the very mediocre Japanese remake of 50 First Dates from 2018). Jovovich, too, while portrayed as being competent and powerful is still easily matched if not surpassed by Tony Jaa’s warrior—I didn’t get a strong sense that Anderson was trying to set up a white savior narrative, and the Americans’ military hardware takes a beating and then some. Still, it felt like many of the fantastic elements of the Monster Hunter world were compromised to shoehorn in the portal gimmick, and the whole thing just felt so bland and unremarkable.
I did like a few aspects of this movie. I liked that Artemis and Hunter worked together to defeat monsters and then crafted better weapons from their corpses, mimicking the play loop from the series. As mentioned before, Tony Jaa is quite likable. I liked some of the production design, the costumes, the monsters. But man, so much of this film just felt half or even quarter-cooked, and the cliffhanger ending had me flashing back to Mortal Kombat Annihilation. I have not played the Monster Hunter games much myself, but fans must be even more disappointed than I was. Anyone looking for an excellent monster bash-em-up will have to keep hunting, but if you are particularly forgiving, this can be a somewhat exasperating time-waster.