Movies adapted from video games have a long history of disappointments. There are success stories, such as Paul W.S. Anderson‘s Resident Evil (2003) and its subsequent franchise, but most fail to find the balance in bringing a game to a new medium. Cater too much to the gamers, and you risk alienating newcomers to your world. Carry over too little, though, and you’re likely to upset the fans who made the game a hit in the first place. Monster Hunter is Anderson’s third go at a video game adaptation — he also directed 1995’s Mortal Kombat — and while it looks to avoid both those pitfalls for a while the damn thing just ends before a third act can even begin.
A large, wooden schooner sails across a sea of sand with a motley crew aboard and an army of monsters in pursuit. The Admiral (Ron Perlman) and the Hunter (Tony Jaa) put up a fight, but the ship is knocked askew and the Hunter is tossed overboard. One title screen later and we’re in a different desert all together. A military squad led by Lt. Artemis (Milla Jovovich) is on a rescue mission for the United Nations looking for a team that recently disappeared. They get caught up in a hellacious storm, and when the sand settles they find themselves in a world of monsters. A big burrowing beastie and an angry arachnid army pick apart the squad, but a team up with the Hunter sees the tide turn… at least temporarily.
So far so good as monsters, hunters, and some well-crafted, fast-moving action catches the eye and elevates Monster Hunter into the realm of silly but entertaining action fare. Anderson and long-time collaborator (and wife) Jovovich continue to compliment each other’s skill sets, and the film initially serves as a fine introduction to the world that first reared its head in 2004 as a game for the Playstation 2. The CG creatures look fantastic and deliver plenty of thrills, but where the film stumbles is in providing anything in the way of story details.
Anderson’s script brings the various characters together, but in addition to providing no central antagonist beyond the miscellaneous monsters it offers nothing in the way of explanation as what’s causing this rift between worlds or why. The film’s second act — characters coming to grips with their situation, preparing to battle the bugs, fighting to survive — goes on far too long leaving mere minutes for what should be the traditional third act. A handful of story details are thrown into the mix very late in the film, one arriving so ridiculously late in the form of a scene nestled into the end credits, that it runs out of time and ends on an unfinished note. The setup for a sequel is blatant, and it comes at the expense of making Monster Hunter its own complete and satisfying tale.
While somewhat underwhelming on the whole because of what’s lacking, the film does still deliver more than enough entertainment and thrills to engage across its 99-minutes. The action and effects are impressive in both scale and frequency as monsters keep things moving throughout. The spiders bring a degree of creepiness too with one scene in particular — a soldier discovers his body is host to some newly hatched baby spiders popping out of his skin — delivering some PG-13 grossness. That rating does preclude anything in the way of bloody gore, but while that’s a disappointment for fans of Anderson’s Resident Evil work it’s more fitting to the game’s demographic.
Jovovich and Jaa share a couple brawls too, and they’re entertaining enough skirmishes even if they’re edited a bit too jarringly at times. The pair form a pretty kick-ass team despite not speaking each other’s language, and that leaves the film with some long, dialogue-free stretches. Action fills much of it, but it finds time here and there for character beats too as the two try to teach and learn from each other. They bond over a Hershey bar, joke about using each other for bait, and, of course, share a training montage — we need a montage! There are highlights as their team-building exercises see them interacting with the beasties and putting Hunter’s big-ass sword to use. It’s harmless, at times silly, fun building towards imminent action beats, and you can’t help but wish it was all in service of more than an abrupt ending.
The movie looks undeniably good as Anderson and cinematographer Glen MacPherson take full advantage of some gorgeous and vast South African filming locations. From epic sand dunes and memorable rock formations, it convinces as an alien landscape. While Jovovich and Jaa are arguably the co-leads, the supporting cast is mostly designed to be forgettable. The exception, as is often the case, is a hairy Perlman who manages to be both bad-ass and the comic relief. If you don’t smile every time he comes onscreen you are either a humorless oaf or literally dead.
Monster Hunter is at times a mash-up of films like The Land That Time Forgot (1974), Aliens (1986), and Stargate (1994) with its military crew dropped into a new, monstrous reality, and there’s promise in pairing its premise with modern day CG effects and action filmmaking. There’s also a tease of the bonkers world it’s all unfolding in — seriously, the bipedal, human-sized cat who works as the ship’s chef deserves his own movie — that leaves you wanting more. It’s just unfair for non-gamer viewers, though, who can’t fill in the blanks with prior knowledge and who have a right to expect a complete tale instead of being left hanging on a giant hook waiting for a sequel that might never arrive.