HEAT VISION

'Monster Hunter:' Paul W.S. Anderson and What Audiences Ask of a Filmmaker

Monster Hunter
Coco Van Oppens/Sony Pictures
Anderson’s filmography rests on the confidence of knowing these films exist on the same level as the dog-eared comics you used to keep under your bed, the scratched game disc your parents hid from you, and the abridged novels you got for a bargain.

[This story contains spoilers for Monster Hunter]

There’s a moment when Milla Jovovich’s Artemis draws two over-sized, glowing blades from her back, stretches out her arms, sets her face with a steely gaze and just the hint of a smile of anticipation for the upcoming battle. A line cribbed from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) wouldn’t have felt out of place in this moment. In fact, I almost expected her to say it, with complete conviction and knowledge of a question that has already been answered by the simple choice of seeing a Paul. W.S. Anderson movie in 2020: “Are you not entertained?”

The answer is an affirmative, because to opt in for a Paul W.S. Anderson movie is, more often than not, a choice to be entertained, nothing more, nothing less. Yet, there has been an attempt in recent years to qualify why the filmmaker, who has never been a critical darling in polite terms, has such a dedicated fanbase, one that includes this author. But the question of "why do people like Paul W.S. Anderson movies?" is no more interesting than asking the same about any other filmmaker. But what is interesting is the question of "what do Paul W.S. Anderson movies provide us as audiences?" And the answer to that question makes the filmmaker unique in the contemporary blockbuster space.

This week Paul W.S. Anderson unleashes Monster Hunter on North America, following its global debut earlier this month. The film, from Sony Pictures and based on the popular Capcom video game series, is little more than it’s been sold as: Milla Jovovich’s U.S. Army Ranger, Artemis, stumbles into a portal to another world and teams-up with Tony Jaa’s Hunter to fight giant monsters so that she can return back to her own world.

It’s a simple yet effective premise, with the pulpy shades of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, and the giant monster mayhem of kaiju movies, which the film’s producer, Toho, is widely known for as the creator of Godzilla and his ilk. As someone unfamiliar with the Monster Hunter video games, though possessing a basic understanding that it’s more about teaming up to fight giant monsters than any narrative or emotional complexity, Anderson’s film seems to succeed in bringing that world to life.

Anderson, is of course, no stranger to video game adaptations, having made his feature film debut with Mortal Kombat (1995), before going on to write and produce all six Resident Evil films, directing four of them, all of which starred Milla Jovovich, whom he married in 2009. While his Resident Evil films are a far cry from the narrative of the games, also based on a Capcom property, the films earned a significant fanbase, grossed over $1 billion worldwide, and cemented Jovovich as an action hero in a time before women were breaking box office records as comic book superheroes.

Call them guilty-pleasures, cult favorites, or exercises in “vulgar auteurism,” a pretentious means of simply admitting you enjoy the works of a filmmaker who consistently doesn’t receive mainstream critical approval, Anderson has been instrumental in making video game movies success stories. But what’s more is that he’s managed to take the elements of video games and employ them throughout his larger filmography.

The filmmaker, whether he’s adapting a property based on a video game, or taking on Death Race (2008) or The Three Musketeers (2011), understands the visual language of video games and their rhythmic sense of timing, aspects that aren’t necessarily built on creating a lasting impression but a momentary high. As Artemis and Hunter move from monster encounter to encounter, Monster Hunter drops an almost constant drip of endorphins for those who find the thrill in this kind of stuff. Characters fall by the wayside too soon, moments of emotional connection are too quickly passed over, and exposition is sorely needed at times. And yet, there’s a meat and potatoes substance to the film, one that acknowledges the fact that what you really came for was to see two action stars hack apart cool looking monsters with giant swords and arrows.

For fans of Anderson’s work the flaws are largely moot. You get what you came for, and even in acknowledging what could have been done better, it doesn’t curb the appetite for whatever Anderson has next. And how many filmmakers can claim that? While Anderson’s films don’t necessarily leave much of an impression in terms of plot, they last in terms of moments. If audiences remember nothing else they remember the laser defense system of Resident Evil (2002), the rain-soaked final battle between Kurt Russell and Jason Scott Lee in Soldier (1998), and Sanaa Lathan’s climactic run from the Alien Queen in Alien vs. Predator (2004).

Anderson’s strength is in creating movie moments, ones that make the whole experience worthwhile. Monster Hunter delivers several of those memorable Anderson moments, scenes that give color to all the rest and make the flaws seem almost negligible in comparison.

What’s fascinating about Anderson’s career from Mortal Kombat through Monster Hunter is that the filmmaker seems perfectly content to make films simply in the service of entertainment without any higher aims. Even his most well-received film, Event Horizon (1997), exists in a space of cheap sci-fi paperbacks and Lovecraft stories, with Anderson aiming for exactly the same heights as his inspirations. Slickly choreographed action, flashy visuals, sophomoric dialogue, and a good looking cast manage to be just enough to keep his films afloat. There’s an element of kitsch to his works that suggest if Anderson had been a filmmaker in an earlier era he’d be much more regarded when it came to critical perception.

Yet this is something neither he nor fans seems concerned about. Anderson has never been a filmmaker to try to evolve with current trends, or change his objective in any noticeable way, something audiences saw plenty of in a post-Nolan world. While Anderson certainly has his share of objectors, he rarely receives the same level of controversy that "love 'em or hate 'em" directors like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder receive in their attempts to aim higher with the filmmaking ambitions over the years. This isn’t to say that Anderson hasn’t improved as a filmmaker over the years, but that he has managed to consistently deliver exactly what’s expected from him. He’s a maker of B and C level movies and has provided assurances that that’s exactly what audiences will get.

As blockbusters grow increasingly complex with their plotting, connective tissue, and dreams of launching cinematic universes, Anderson’s films have remained simplistic and reliably pulpy. They aren’t an invitation for an unthinking audience as some critics have claimed over the years, but an invitation to think about what we expect from our filmmakers, and to appreciate the varied quality that exists within blockbuster filmmaking. We so often find ourselves in a place where we expect a genre to be heightened in some way, to rise up from the level of its source material and find esteem.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s filmography rests on the confidence of knowing these films exist on the same level as the dog-eared comics you used to keep under your bed, the scratched game disc your parents hid from you, and the abridged novels you got for a bargain. These aren’t pieces of mythology, they’re commodities that weren’t built to last, entertainment made for moments, and part of a grand tradition of stories told purely for the value of having a willing audience.

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