Is What It Is March 2, 2021
On Monster Hunter and Space Sweepers
onster Hunter doesn’t try to be anything more than it has to be. This isn’t that much of a surprise. In the previous collaboration between its
director, Paul W.S. Anderson, and his muse/wife Milla Jovovich — the Resident Evil series (2002-'16) — there just like in Monster Hunter wasn’t much to the plot or the overhanging ambitions. For 14 years we watched an extraordinary quasi-warrior woman named Alice (Jovovich) who lived through an apocalyptic catastrophe battle that catastrophe's undead aftermath (zombies!), all the while running away from the employees of the abnormally wicked and seemingly all-eyes-everywhere corporation responsible for the world’s end in the first place. An adaptation of a video game, the Resident Evil series wasn’t interested in doing much besides offering its audiences a slick array of propulsive and sometimes clever action sequences. Their incessant flash,
complemented by a facile conceit rather than a meaningful overarching story that got more rewarding with each movie, inevitably led to reliable critical pans. (Anderson has routinely been called one of the worst living directors.)
The films are fairly interchangeable. Except for the first and final chapters (there are six total Resident Evil movies), it isn’t all that necessary to watch in the “correct” order, sort of like how you can enjoy the latest installation in a video-game series without having played all its predecessors. The action, not the narrative, is the point. Any one of the Resident Evil movies thrillingly left “no avenue for action unexplored,” wrote critic Daniel Engber a few years ago, and to my eye that was always what made them better than their reputations suggested. They knew their purpose and were always dependably at the least effective; you didn't detect a laziness. One expected to walk into the theater for something unceasingly action-packed and wouldn’t walk out telling the friend they’d come with that they’d gotten something else. Sometimes these largely seen-one-seen-them-all movies dabbled in brilliance. During the opening sequence of the best movie in the series, 2012’s Retribution, a melee acrobatically unfolded backward and in slow motion. It’s basically a prerequisite for a big-budget action movie to begin with an ostentatious opening sequence; this one was a refreshing anomaly. Its ostentatiousness had an idiosyncratic edge.
Engber’s conclusion that the Resident Evil movies left no avenue for action unexplored is also true of Monster Hunter. This pulpy adventure movie seems an attempt by Anderson and Jovovich to again cinematize a video game in a bid to give themselves an untapped venue through which to proffer their usual heady offering of all-action-no-emotional-depth filmmaking. (I say it seems like an attempt because the ending, though not quite a cliffhanger, is conspicuously designed to leave doors open just in case.) There really isn’t anything to the movie. Jovovich, always physically gung-ho and believably unbreakable in the action-hero tradition, plays an army captain named Artemis who is forced to battle otherworldly monsters (they look like satanic triceratopses) after she and her team, conducting a rescue mission in the desert, are sucked into what appears to be a parallel universe.
After everyone in Artemis’ squad is devoured despite their best gun-assisted efforts. Artemis must figure out a way to escape this hellscape. She finds help in a man we only know as the Hunter (martial artist Tony Jaa), who we infer has been fending off these monsters for years now (he has a hideaway in a high-up cave). Though he and Artemis naturally duke it out at first — Engber wasn't kidding when he noted that any opportunity for action will be taken by Anderson's hand — they eventually find common ground. Both people, after all, would like to get out of here and now have a seemingly dependable co-fighter to lean on. (Artemis also offers a Hershey bar she has inexplicably kept stored in one of her many pockets; the Hunter apparently has not had the treat before.)
Monster Hunter is almost entirely a succession of action sequences — of course it is! — and is indifferent to ideas, action-wise, of "letting up." When a new environ or type of monster or supporting character is introduced, it has the too-neat rush of advancing to a new level in a video game; there isn't any dramatic tension. Monster Hunter is an emotionless thrill machine. It’s also an inadvertent throwback to the silent movie: the Hunter doesn’t speak any English, and dialogue isn’t that important anyway when primary modes of communication are emptying bullet chambers and swinging fists and hungry beasts about as big as Godzilla making chase.
If Monster Hunter were made by anybody other than Anderson I would probably say it felt empty — little more than an exercise. But when you have him behind the camera you know, given that he’s been making largely unvarying movies for the last 25 years, what you’re going to get: competently mounted and sometimes even stylish action in abundance. You get what you think you will with Monster Hunter. For those charmed in the past by Anderson’s frivolousness, fundamental vacuousness remains part of the experience. A weighty narrative in an Anderson movie is like excess fat. I didn’t want any respite from the constant fighting. Saying a movie prefers style to substance is typically meant to be pejorative. (Though I’ve long felt that if a film’s style is compelling enough, the complaint is automatically rendered moot.) With Anderson at the helm, these cockeyed priorities — though in this case we’re talking about action more than we are outright stylishness, since the movie is a bit ugly to look at — are part of the draw.
Milla Jovovich in 2021's Monster Hunter.
pace Sweepers, now on Netflix, has been dubbed South Korea’s very first space blockbuster. This busy landmark movie might be overlong at 136 minutes, and it may be appallingly acted by everybody who is
not among the four leads, but it’s otherwise a majority-delightful sci-fi comedy thriller. It’s exactly the kind of sparkly and intelligently crafted would-be blockbuster that makes you miss watching something big on a large movie screen. (As of the time of writing I’m approaching the 1st anniversary of the last time I saw something in a theater — an experience I’ve started to, not to be too earnest, long for.) This playful until it isn't anymore (the stakes eventually get high) movie follows a quartet of misfits (Song Joong-ki, Kim Tae-ri, Ji Seon-Kyu, and Yoo Hae-jin). To get by in a future where climate change's effects have made Earth virtually uninhabitable, the four roam outer space in a spaceship together for the meager payoffs of space-debris collection. This chosen family's interplay is immediately inviting; its chemistry is the best thing about the movie.
Inexorably complications put a damper on the foursome's
comfortable-enough if increasingly tedious routine. They by coincidence are forced to take in a lost little girl (Park Ye-rin) who it turns out is a robot meant to be used as a weapon of mass destruction. (The world is on the hunt for her; when she coincidentally wanders into a nightclub in an early scene, a literal massacre between reward-seeking patrons and governmental bodies alike ensues.) Then, because of incentives that would take a longer time to explain than I would like to allot here, the quartet takes it upon itself to foil the classically evil plotting of a magnate (Richard Armitage) who is like a combination of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. (He could be seen as an evolved version of them both; who's to say how much a multi-billionaire's aspirations will change by 2092?) Little about Space Sweepers pushes against space-opera expectations. It drags during its last act; racing against time becomes unexpectedly a plodding pursuit. But sometimes a film’s spirit makes up for its lack of narrative freshness. Space Sweepers has plenty of it.
Monster Hunter: B+
Space Sweepers: B