Frankly, there is not a lot to say about the film. It has no subtext, the acting is in service of the action not really the characters, and the action is from Paul W,S. Anderson, who has been making this kind of movie for a long time so he knows his way around this stuff. The only hook I have for potential fans is my own nostalgia for movies like this and I will get into that in a moment.
The story does not spend anytime explaining what is going on. It drops us into a mission, transports us to another dimension and starts throwing monsters at us pretty damn quickly. No one will be surprised that Milla Jovovitch’s character, Captain Artemis, ends up as the one real survivor of the opening half hour. The other characters are so thinly drawn that you can see it coming immediately. What does work in the movie is a long sequence where she combats and collaborates with a true resident of this world, Tony Jaa, a martial arts movie star that you will recognize if you like those kinds of films. Their initial interactions are full of hand to hand combat and the sort of action work you would find in Anderson’s other movies.
The process by which the two become allied is reminiscent of a number of other films, the first that come to mind is “Enemy Mine”. My nostalgia radar was going off very early, thinking of one of my favorite childhood movies “The Mysterious Island” from 1961, but also some cheesy 1970s films starring Doug McClure, “At the Earth’s Core” and “The Land That Time Forgot”. Basically a group of outsiders gets plopped down in an alien environment and gets attacked by monsters. Edgar Rice Burroughs should have received a story credit on this movie.
“Monster Hunter” is a brisk time waster that will go down well on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it is not especially good. The design of the monsters is fun and a little confounding. Since this review is mostly name dropping of other films, I will throw in “Starship Troopers”. When you see the night crawling nest of creatures after Artemis and the Hunter, you will understand why that reference is relevant. I’m not sure why a sailing ship crossing a desert works visually, but in the opening sequence it does, inspite of the fact that it is confusing. When you notice that the Captain of the ship is played by Ron Pearlman, yo will not at all be surprised that those images come back later in the film.
For me, the main reason to see this is that it is playing exclusively in theaters now, and dammit, I am on a personal crusade to try and sustain movie theaters until things get back to something more normal. If we don’t try, they will all give up and we will be left alone in our living rooms. That is a monster that I am hunting.
So we finally get to see the movie that most fans of Comic Book movies have anticipated for the year. It was pushed back from it’s original release, and then pushed back again to Christmas, and finally, it is released on streaming at the same time it shows up in theaters. It turns out that it is mostly a lump of coal rather than the diamond in the crown. WW84 will probably turn out to be the biggest critical disappointment of the year. After so may expectations created by the first stand alone Wonder Woman, this will feel like a huge letdown.
The failures of this movie are not in production values, performance or any technical field, they are mistakes in the storytelling. As I’ve said a dozen times or more over the years, I am not a comics guy. So I can’t tell you how this story follows the path of the character in the comic books. I understand that this was a storyline in 1984, so that must account for the reason the film has been situated in the past, and that seems to be the only reason it is. That and the fact that 1984 will give the film makers a chance to lampoon the fashions of the era, basically playing off the same trick as “The Wedding Singer”. Otherwise, there is no reason that the movie could not be set in a contemporary framework.
As usual, I avoid spoilers as much as possible, but the first thing I want to talk about is the opening of the film, and I myself see no real connection to the rest of the story, so it will not ruin anything in that regard. The opening is a flashback sequence to Diana as a young girl on Themyscira and basically it is a long sequence from an episode of “Wipeout” or “Ninja Warrior”. At the conclusion, we get a few words from her mother Connie Nielsen and her Aunt Robin Wright, and then they are gone and the land of Diana’s origin is never revisited during the movie. That is understandable given the story we had before and the Justice League follow up. However, if you watch the trailer, it suggests a cross cutting story between two past timelines and that makes this a disappointment. The bigger issue on the other hand is that the sequence introduces a plotline about the “truth”, but it is forced onto the events in the sequence and there is not really a follow up in the main part of the film. It probably would have been better to stick with the idea that there are no shortcuts to real happiness or success. At least that would have fit in with the story that develops in the 1984 setting.
The main plot is attempting to do what other superhero films sometimes try and usually fail at accomplishing, creating two antagonists for the hero to deal with. Barbara Minerva is a potentially great character who would match up well with Diana Prince in both of their personas. Kristen Wiig plays Barbara as mousey and lacking the confidence of Diana Prince in spite of her clear accomplishments. When she develops the “Cheetah”, she is a match for Wonder Woman but that process get interrupted by and pushed aside by the second villain. Pedro Pascal plays Max Lord, a TV investment guru who has designs on an ancient object that might grant him his wish to save his crumbling empire. His efforts are the thing that lead to the usual cataclysmic outcomes that these stories always seem to demand, even when they are not needed. We spend so much time following a chain of events in his plot that we lose the promising story of the two powerful women heading into a conflict. That relationship becomes a side issue to the third act end of the world scenario and CGI-fest that has undermined most of the DCEU films so far. Max Lord is basically Jafar from “Aladdin” at the end of the film.
In an attempt to avoid repeating themselves and having one of the ancient gods appear as the opponent [Ares in Wonder Woman, Steppenwolf in Justice League], we get an object that is the equivalent of a magic lamp. Then the mystical object is anthropomorphized as a human character. There is a repeated quality to the film that does not escape notice by screenwriting trickery. The fish out of water device that was used amusingly to introduce Diana to WWI era Great Britain, is repeated almost note for note with a fashion show for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) when he appears in 1984. The mocking of men’s clothing styles from that time period is fun, but it is merely a side note. Also, the sacrifice of one of the characters is a dead on repeat of the original story, it is not disguised at all.
There are a number of inconsistencies in the world the screen writing team and director have come up with. The way in which wishes are granted is arbitrary, suggesting at one point that a person can have only one, but then turning around and granting an additional wish to one of the antagonists without any explanation. The idea that “wishes” have unintended consequences ala the old monkey’s paw style curse, is fine and may explain a trade off in powers that is part of the story, but later on it seems that the wish granter may take anything they so choose in exchange for the wish. The long standing joke about Wonder Woman flying in an invisible plane is another one of those confusing conundrums that are largely skimmed over. Also, the setting is 1984 and there is a sequence with the President of the U.S., but that person is never referred to by name and the actor playing the part bears very little resemblance to the 40th President. The answer that the President gives to a question about his deepest wish is the exact opposite of the widely known desire that Reagan had for no nuclear weapons. It was the underpinning of the Strategic Defense Initiative to render such weapons powerless.
I generally avoid reading or listening to other reviews before I provide my hot take on a film. I waited to edit the Lambcast on this subject until after I’d seen the movie and formed my own opinions. My friends on the Lamb were harder on the movie than I was, so maybe these criticisms are not as minimal as I thought. I just know that although I was glad to see the film (In a Theater!), I was let down by the script and direction. There are some fine action scenes but the heart of the movie should have been the relationship between Diana and Barbara, and that turns out to merely be the gall bladder of the film.
So when I reviewed “The Croods” seven years ago, I finished off my comments by suggesting that there is no need for a sequel and that going to the well again would probably diminish the results. Let me say I was wrong. It turns out, that there is an idea for a sequel that might be worth some time to develop, and you should never underestimate the talent of artists who are given enough creative freedom. While “The Croods: A New Age” is not essential, it is a remarkably entertaining diversion and it comes at a time when we need those kinds of diversions. This family of Cavemen has a voice cast that includes three Academy Award winning actors, and several more very talented performers who imbue the characters with some personality as they are put through their paces. This is a raucous film, that mostly lets the plot move along without making much sense but allowing the characters to entertain us and the production design to dazzle us. The writers, artists and director have focused on elements that are appealing to watch without trying to be too heavy handed in the message department. The narrative is simple, the Croods encounter a more evolved group of people and culture clash ensues. As a baby boomer, I enjoyed the extensive use of the Partridge Family hit “I Think I Love You” , and I hope that because it is a song from fifty years ago, it comes across as a classic rather than simply a pop culture reference that today’s audiences will not recognize. The film makers largely eschew the overuse of contemporary pop elements with the exception of some things that they are mocking. “A New Age” is not just a reference to a time epoch in caveman world, but also takes a bite out of some modern trends like men’s fashion sense and managing your katra. The idea of a balance in the environment gets broken when the new characters, appropriately named the Bettermans, are forced to confront the unintended consequences of their carefully regulated utopia.
One path that the story wisely does not exploit for the conventional purposes is the love angle that is embodied by Eep and Guys romance. You might expect a love triangle that pits the two women against one another, but thankfully, the creators find a more productive use for the two teen girls that does not involve one-upsmanship and prickly rivalry. The conflict at the end is more comedic and focused on a wacky culture and the baiting of two teen girls never arises. In fact, the women get a funny sequence which is not very organic, but feels more authentic than a similar moment in “Avenger’s Endgame”. Cloris Leachman gets another chance to show us why she has been a successful character actor for fifty plus years, and fans of comic book style TV shows and movies will feel appreciative of the homage, however in-organic, that the girls in the story get.
There was a nice sized crowd at our screening, in spite of the covid limitation on capacity, it almost felt like it really was a Thanksgiving weekend like any other at the cinema. The movie is not essential but it is enjoyable and the visuals are enough to keep our admiration for the animation wizards at Dreamworks, pretty high. While the story telling is not up to Pixar standards, the art work certainly is and the humor should appeal to kids especially.