Not every movie works, we all know that. Generally speaking, people go into making a film with the best of intentions and for various reasons it doesn’t pan out.
Because of my faith that individuals who make movies want to make successful ones, back when going to movie theaters was a thing people did, I would always cringe when an audience would laugh at something that was unintentionally funny; I hurt for the cast and crew in those moments. If they didn’t want it to be a joke, we shouldn’t be laughing at it.
It is because of this sense of right and wrong that I was taken aback when I let out a guffaw at seeing Ron Perlman’s character at the outset of the new film, “Monster Hunter.” I did not intend to laugh. I did not want to laugh. I do not believe it was intended to be funny. But, a chuckle unquestionably escaped my lips. There was something about the craggly face combined with the yellow-blonde mane and the outlandish outfit and the framing of the whole thing. It was funny. I would later find some parts of “Monster Hunter” to be intentionally amusing, but my first look at Perlman as the Admiral didn’t feel that way. It felt like a mistake. I am, I kid you not, ashamed.
Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, famed for his work on the “Resident Evil” series of films, reunites here with the star of those movies, Milla Jovovich, for this adaptation of a different Capcom game series and the results are… confused. It is less a movie in search of a plot than one which seems to purposefully avoid having one. There are some moments which are excellent, but those only exacerbate the larger problems with goings-on, and of those there are many.
As the tale goes, Jovovich is Artemis, a Captain in the Army Rangers. Along with her unit (Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, and Tip “T.I.” Harris), she gets sucked into a wormhole leading to another world which is, it seems, right where ours is but hidden from us. This other world is populated by monsters (see the movie’s title). This alternate world has got your “Tremors”/”Dune” type diggers (they have horns and are not worm-like in shape, but they go under the sand and pop up, “Tremors” and “Dune” style) and your spider-types and your dragons and your snakey-ones and your “hey those really look a lot like dinosaurs” variety as well. There are people (like the Admiral), but by and large Newton Minnow would identify it as a vast wasteland.
Or maybe it isn’t a wasteland and Minnow would be wrong (wrong again for my money). There’s a Dark Tower that controls something or other there and it’s not dragon born but rather, presumably, human-ish made. And there are sailing vessels which traverse the sand dunes, but maybe those are really just ships from our world which got portaled over at some point. I don’t really understand how they traverse the sand, but they seem to. Maybe.
Chiefly, this is the issue with “Monster Hunter” – it has no desire to explore anything which it offers to the viewer. It is a series of moments which may have the same characters, or at least ones who look the same and answer to the same names, but there’s shifting logic and motivations for those people. Maybe we’re to understand them as different individuals depending on their location? I don’t think that’s the case, but I could probably make the argument anyway.
The mysterious Dark Tower in the distance? It’s made to appear super important and also totally ignored until the movie is just about done. The Admiral? He may be a the start of the movie quite briefly, but then he’s gone for over an hour and when he does show up again, it makes no sense. There’s Tony Jaa’s Hunter, who takes some pity on Artemis and helps her, but also randomly decides to try and capture her after helping her because… reasons? Hunter has an elaborate cave he’s set up to keep himself safe from the monsters which is well designed until we get further into the movie, new facts are revealed, and it feels like the cave shouldn’t exist at all. At one point, Hunter and Artemis put together a plan to take out one of the “Tremors”/”Dune” monsters, a Diablos apparently. This plan involves the spidery-type of monster, so they put in effort to get a spidery one and then kind of abandon the plan when they take on the Diablos. Or, they try to execute it and Hunter just turns out to be horrifically wrong about the whole thing.
During action sequences, Anderson’s camera moves about and the film is constantly cutting from one shot to the next. The result is a disorienting affair that undercuts Jovovich and Jaa’s action chops. The music is as loud and over-the-top as the monsters, but lacks their (computer-generated to be sure) conviction. The monsters, like Artemis and Hunter, own the screen. Nothing else comes close.
I promised earlier that some aspects of the movie are indeed successful and, as that last sentence may indicate, chiefly the good is Artemis and Hunter. When Jovovich and Jaa are allowed to interact without worry about extraneous things like notions of plot or pacing or anything else, they’re truly great. It isn’t all that different from dozens of other movies where two people who don’t speak the same language have to figure out how to interact with one another in order to succeed (you almost want one of them to say, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”), but there’s a joy to their interactions which is largely lacking from the rest of the proceedings.
As for those monsters – they look believable. They have heft to them, realistic movements, and while one knows they are computer generated, it feels like they inhabit this world and that the humans are there with them. For a movie called “Monster Hunter,” that’s a sizable success. People are watching the movie in order to see the monsters and to see the humans fight them and at least part of that equation works. Yes, that part is subsumed by everything else, but at least it’s there.
I repeatedly note when dealing with such a title that movies adapted from video games get a (largely deserved) bad rap. “Monster Hunter” is going to do absolutely nothing to change anyone’s mind about how no one should try to move something from a game to the big screen. The plot is an abject disaster and the action sequences all too often play out poorly. There are elements which may, unintentionally, produce laughter. Those who are tuning in so that they can see Milla Jovovich destroy (non-zombie) video game baddies will find elements to enjoy, but it’s really the moments of quiet friendship between Artemis and Hunter that work better than anything else on offer.
Check that, that stuff is not just “better” than the other parts of the film, they’re really good all on their own. These characters are the heart of the movie and they work, they’re just buried by stuff that doesn’t.
photo credit: Screen Gems