Resident Evil's Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson hunt for a new videogame movie franchise
After turning Resident Evil into a worldwide franchise, can the actress and filmmaker duo do the same for Monster Hunter?
Six years after launching the first Resident Evil movie, having passed off the franchise's next two sequels to other filmmakers, director Paul W.S. Anderson found a new videogame he would end up turning into another massive popcorn blockbuster. That was Monster Hunter, a fantasy action-adventure title originated in Japan about a lone Hunter traveling across vast landscapes to take down gargantuan creatures, using their bones and carcasses to craft new indestructible weapons and armor. As of September of this year, the Monster Hunter franchise has grown to stand beside Resident Evil as one of Capcom's most lucrative gaming titles with 65 million units sold. It was one of Capcom's "crown jewels," Anderson tells EW, "so they required quite a lot of persuading to allow us to work on the movie."
Anderson saw it as "a great opportunity to make a creature-feature where the creatures were completely unknown to an audience," he explains. "I think audiences are very familiar with a lot of classic creatures, be it from Greek mythology or dinosaurs or whatever. But these creatures, they have a freshness to them, which I think comes from the Japanese design. They would just be immediately very, very exciting, very cinematic."
It seems Anderson and Capcom are hoping to use that opportunity to launch another gaming movie franchise with Monster Hunter, which launched in theaters last week to a softer fanfare than most theatrical releases, largely due to current movie-going conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Milla Jovovich, Anderson's wife and star of the previous Resident Evil movies, is back in a leading action role as Captain Artemis, head of a United Nations Joint Security Operation who finds herself and her squadron transported to an alternate reality ruled by behemoth beasts. She's already the focus of a tie-in to the Monster Hunter: World videogame where players can play as Artemis, pointing to the potential for merchandizing synergy with this venture. There's also a post-credits scene in the film that leaves the door open to explore more stories with this concept, should audiences take to it. Critics largely haven't, though reviewers also didn't care for the Resident Evil movies and they went on to become some of the most successful game adaptations of all time.
It seems it comes down to box office, which is still crippled by closed theaters (mostly) in the U.S. Still, Monster Hunter topped the weekend box office when it debuted with a domestic opening haul of $2.2 million. For a pandemic premiere, that's on par with the new normal. Internationally, where theaters are largely open as other countries managed to quell the COVID storm earlier on, the film has earned upwards of $4.8 million, resulting in a global tally of more than $7.5 million. That number couldn't been higher, but the film was pulled from theaters in China in light of what local audiences called a racist joke from actor Jin Au-Yeung. The line has since been scrubbed from the film, but it's unknown at this time if Monster Hunter will return to Chinese locations. And all that doesn't account for any streaming or at-home release plans for North America. None have been announced yet by Sony and Screen Gems. Predicting the next big movie franchise is an even murkier situation, given the current state of Hollywood, but hope still remains.
"We always take one movie at a time," Anderson says. "With Resident Evil, it was something that started out being a smaller European movie. And, as the fan base grew, the budgets grew and we were able to make more movies, but it was really the fans that stimulated that, So, this, I think, is the same thing. People are gonna see the movie, they're gonna love it or hate it, and then, you never know. For me, the ending feels like it's the right ending for this movie."
If more sequels means they get a bigger budget than they had on Monster Hunter, there's no telling where this spectacle could go. Anderson took his cast and crew to South Africa and Namibia, setting up tent villages in the desert, hundreds of miles away from the closest towns, in order to replicate the landscapes depicted in the game. "There were so many crazy bugs and we’re filming these explosions," Jovovich recalls. "So, on top of the weather being so hot, you’re dealing with pyrotechnics, sand. We had to walk half a mile just to get to the porta potty!" For the scenes involving Captain Artemis and Tony Jaa's Hunter grappling with the Black Diablos, a fearsome horned monster that burrows underneath the sand, the actress mentions "crazy sand cannons that would shoot tons and tons of sand at us to represent the animal running or stomping next to us." She adds, "We would get blasted with a ton of sand, which would throw us back, but it was so fun on the day. It also made it seem so real at the same time."
That approach comes from her days working on Resident Evil with Anderson: meet a CG-heavy concept with practical effects so that the CG ends up enhancing real-world stunts. Colin Salmon's James "One" Shade, the guy who's sliced and diced into tiny cubes during the corridor scene in the first Resident Evil movie, was given a full-body mold replica that was then torn apart for the filming. Green screen "makes it hard to deliver the illusion of reality," Anderson says. "Even with all the money in the world to make a green screen look like a real physical environment. That’s what led us to going to these amazing landscapes and shooting them for real with Monster Hunter."
As opposed to someone like Alice, the lead character of Resident Evil, Jovovich found Captain Artemis to be much more real. Her mom, Galina Jovovich, was an army brat who traveled around Russia before becoming a movie star. Her dad, Bogdan Jovovich, also has "crazy stories" from generations fighting in wars, she says. "I joke around with my family a lot, if I wasn't an actress, I probably would have joined the military myself because I just relate to that through my family so much. To be able to play a soldier and a female army ranger was just fascinating for me." The actress worked with Captain Natalie Mallue, a military advisor on the film, to guide her portrayal. "I've played these bigger-than-life characters, still it was like they were comic book characters," she continues. "Captain Artemis is a real woman, yet she is a real-life superhero at the same time."
Conversations involving videogame movie adaptations tend to come prepackaged with the idea of the "videogame movie curse," meaning videogame movies tend to suck. There are exceptions, some of which have come from Anderson himself, who's been making them since his first big Hollywood film, 1995's Mortal Kombat. That release, he says, was "looked down upon as though people were like, 'Why do you want to do something like that?' But I really had faith in the source material and I had faith in the idea of adapting a videogame. In that case, we were proven right." In 1995, Mortal Kombat received the second highest opening of any movie in history with $23.3 million and would go on to gross $122 million worldwide.
Anderson does acknowledge there has been "more failure than success" in the history of the videogame-based movie. "I think the reason for that is you walk a very fine line between trying to please two audiences, both of which are very important: the hardcore fans that knew everything about the world that the movie is going to occupy and then the more mainstream movie-going audience that might want to come and see a great action-adventure movie." There seems to also be a third audience, which is the IP owners. In the case of Resident Evil and Monster Hunter, that would be Capcom. Anderson worked very closely with the "creative gatekeepers," as he calls them, to ensure he maintained their blessings on the Monster Hunter movie. "There were lots of me flying to Tokyo to show them the latest cuts of the creature fights in the movie and then coming into the cutting room and things like that," Anderson says. "It was a great creative relationship."
Anderson's track record with franchises speaks for itself, and yet the climate in which he was making Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil is not the same climate now. Warner Bros. announced an industry-changing move to release all of its big 2021 movies in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming platform simultaneously, though executives promise it's not a permanent situation, just one to help them get through the pre-COVID vaccine environment. Disney, too, has moved multiple big theater releases to the Disney+ platform, and other studios sold titles off to Netflix and Amazon for streaming premieres. Monster Hunter, meanwhile, is sticking with its current theatrical release for the time being in North America. Anderson wouldn't comment on whether there were plans at any point to give Monster Hunter a streaming release, but he mentioned that he "made the movie as a theatrical movie and shot these big wide landscapes on these landscape cameras" with the intent of audiences watching the film on the big screen.
"Certainly we’re giving people an option," he says. "If it is playing and cinemas are open, you have the option to go see it on the big screen as originally intended, but also a lot of people won’t see it that way because they can’t and that just seems to be the reality of the world right now. When I started making movies, someone much more intelligent than me said, 'A movie is like a cake. It doesn’t matter where you cut it, it’s got to taste good.' And I think that’s the same with movies. It doesn’t matter how you see it, it’s got to really work and be a great entertainment."
Escapism, Jovovich notes, is something that's in such high-demand right now given the effects of COVID, both physically and mentally. So, perhaps, there's hope for more Monster Hunter if that's the new currency. After all, it's a movie where audiences can escape into an entirely new reality. Jovovich jokes, "Thank God people have such huge Androids and iPhones now."