Worlds on Fire

Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson's MONSTER HUNTER (2020)

Paul W.S. Anderson builds elaborate cinematic worlds with the intention of watching them burn. Corporate super villain Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen) in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016) inadvertently describes this auteurist trait when discussing his plan to wipe out Earth’s population with an “orchestrated apocalypse.”

Fittingly, the chaos that ensues in Anderson’s films, especially those made with his creative soulmate Milla Jovovich, feels beautifully predetermined like many of the popular video games they’ve adapted for the big screen. As an actor with substantially diverse skillsets, Jovovich brings an unmatched cinematic physicality and energy that stands in defiance to everything from capitalist evils to fire breathing dragons. She’s an otherworldly woman on fire trying to outmatch an unflinching enemy while also attempting to save innocent lives. Rarely does she achieve both.

Because humanity already lies on the precipice of disaster and annihilation in these scenarios, these films are essentially last stands in motion. Multiple examples abound throughout Anderson’s filmography; Earth’s fate rests on the broad shoulders of three American/Americanized martial arts fighters in Mortal Kombat (1995); A ragtag utopian civilization made up of castaways is only able to defend itself in Solider (1998) thanks to the weaponized killing machine played by the virtually silent Kurt Russell; 17th century Europe is on the brink of total war in The Three Musketeers (2011), and only the film’s thieving group of bombastic heroes can stop it.

Anderson’s depictions of ultra-violence are admittedly silly, but they collectively represent a growing desperation and need to fight back against fascist systems that threaten freewill and identity. That sense of purpose is something critics often fail to recognize. Especially since it’s a theme that defines Anderson’s many lengthy action set pieces brimming with flair and kinetic movement. Not only technically impressive, these scenes are microcosms for a larger battle for ideological and emotional survival. This is Anderson’s way of reconciling the monumentally destructive forces like climate change, political corruption, greed, and cruelty that have ensured humanity’s self-destruction. In order to face these challenges honestly and brutally, he flips a lit match toward the pooling gasoline to see what kind of courage can spring forth from the flames.

The Sci-Fi hellscape of Event Horizon (1997), all rotting interiors and splintering metal, is his most cynical film and the perfect house of mirrors that reflects back our worst impulses and most craven desires. The Resident Evil franchise offers slightly more hope while expanding the idea that our crumbling Earth (and all of its subterranean levels) has become an extended tomb for the walking dead. But no film better encapsulates the unique sense of imminent combustion and corrosive vision of community than Pompeii (2014), where a grand Roman melodrama of violence and social status plays out before Mt. Vesuvius reigns down a blanket of flaming molten ash on the port city below.

A small subset of writers have championed Anderson’s work over the years, but he is by no means a broad critical darling. And by today’s standard of “quality” I feel like that’s badge of honor. His films are admittedly sophomoric and exhausting at times, but they’re also painterly and weird in ways that Marvel or DC products could only dream of being. His best work contains dense widescreen compositions that are second to none in Hollywood, full of movement and depth that help us imagine those layers of terrain beyond the frame.

Anderson’s Monster Hunter (2020), once again an adaptation of a popular video game, is one of his greatest achievements for this very reason, making literal the sandbox of infinite possibilities and threats that has always defined his films. The flimsy story involves a U.N. rescue team led by Capt. Artemis (Jovovich) who gets swept up in a massive lightning storm that transports them to an alternate world bordering our own.

Sand dunes stretch for miles, and the only structure they can see is a monolithic tower surrounded by the very weather system that has brought them through this hellish portal. Many horrors await, like the nimble dragon “Diablos” who swims through the sand as if it were water, submerging and reappearing with frightening speed and force. The Nerscylla, a rampaging species of nocturnal fossorial spiders, prove to be even more frightening.

Monster Hunter doesn’t waste time dispatching most of the supporting characters in horrible ways, leaving Artemis to fend for herself against these seemingly unbeatable beasts. But this world has fighters of its own, and one of them, an agile archer she dubs “Hunter” (Tony Jaa), has been monitoring her every move.

Themes of camaraderie and trust are common in Anderson’s work, but here it becomes the focal point for the film’s cascading, exciting momentum. Initially adversaries in combat, Artemis and Hunter quickly develop a mutual bond based on their desire to return home…and eat chocolate. Jaa and Jovovich make for the ultimate DTV odd couple, titans of the action genre who also happen to be charming and funny as hell.

Relationships under duress are something Anderson has been interested in since his superb debut Shopping (1994), an angry crime film equally obsessed with images of fire and contorted metal. Monster Hunter displays this iconography on a grander level, mirroring Pompeii’s love of spectacle while also rooting it in the personal perspective of Artemis, a new witness to this never-ending battle for control of a bridge between worlds. Watching this carnage spill over into “our world” in the film’s final set piece (i.e. Rathalos vs. the U.S. military) is one of the most exciting action sequences in recent Hollywood cinema. Our tanks and weapons aren’t shit compared to a ruthless flying flamethrower.

Above all else, Monster Hunter proves yet again that these are artists deeply interested in the ways humans provoke their own destruction. Whereas before it was the deadly T-Virus of Resident Evil or a erupting volcano in Pompeii, now it’s the arrogance of thinking our world is the only world. Their ability to imagine these mysterious other places with pristine detail and texture, and in the process disrupt our assumptions about boundaries of genre and space, is what makes the films of Anderson and Jovovich so essential.