In hindsight, South Korea's THE HOST is easily one of the best monster movies of the past twenty years. Regardless of release date, it's just such a great example of what a great summer movie should be. THE HOST is funny, scary, silly, vicious, politically-aware, and profound, sometimes all at once. It’s rare that a movie can get me to genuinely care about its main characters, but rarer still is when a movie gets me to caring right from the first ten minutes, and yes, from behind subtitles. Rarest of all is when this happens in a movie about a mutated river monster laying siege to a major city.
This movie is about a family of weirdos and dipshits (really, that's the scientific term) who have to band together to save a little girl when she’s taken by an American military scientist’s careless mistake gone wrong. That "careless mistake gone wrong" is a real-deal swallow-you-up monster, and it's not one that looks much like any I’ve seen in movies before. An original monster design that is both convincing and interesting to look at is a near-impossible mountain of a prospect -- in this case it took an international crew that included New Zealand's Weta Workshop (THE LORD OF THE RINGS, 2005's KING KONG).
The great monster movies have a simplicity to their engine. There’s not much to THE HOST's story beyond the monster's initial attack, and then the search for the girl. (Described in those terms, this is not too far afield of the basic plot of 1933's KING KONG, which is a good ballpark to be inside. Even if you're playing right field.) But it's not just simplicity that makes this movie have impact -- even at a full two hours, THE HOST has momentum. It’s brilliantly filmed, acted, edited, and scored. And the movie is really funny. (This is why some have compared it to JAWS.) The main characters are somewhat dopey, particularly Song Kang-ho as the bottle-blond goofball whose layers eventually reveal themselves. To be honest, I started off laughing at them -- as the director and co-writer Joon-ho Bong clearly must have intended -- but as the story goes on, I found myself really invested in them, hoping they’d succeed, and worried they wouldn’t. That’s what really great movies do, in my opinion. Get you to care. And if they can do that while thrilling you, scaring you, and making you laugh? Well, then the comparisons to JAWS don't seem quite that much of a reach.
THE HOST is the midnight movie this weekend at IFC Center.