It begins in classic fashion: an American military scientist stationed in South Korea unwisely breaks protocol by contaminating the Han River with formaldehyde. A few years later, two fishermen discover a small, mutated creature swimming around them. They attempt to catch it, but the mutant gets away. Some time after that, the mutant has grown into a large, amphibious predator that looks like a cross between a whale, a tadpole and a salmon–and it’s hungry.
Monster movies tend to test our intelligence by relying too heavily on the monster. It’s an interesting dynamic when you think about it–the very topic of the film brings the whole production down. As to why this happens, well, there’s an easy answer: relatability. How in the world are we supposed to empathize with a monster, especially if it’s purely animalistic in nature? Monsters are cool, but we need human characters to fill in the gaps, and too many creature features are content with simply using humans as a diet supplement.
This isn’t the case with The Host, a brilliant South Korean sci-fi horror outing from director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho. It takes a classic B-movie premise–giant monster terrorizing the city–and completely turns the genre over on its head. More Spielberg than Godzilla, The Host wisely nixes the whole “macroscopic military” perspective and instead focuses on a single family who have a real bone to pick with nameless beast. The problem: their youngest member, Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), has been abducted by the monster and presumed dead by just about everyone. Except, of course, by her father, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who receives a broken-up call from her cell phone. Nobody believes Gang-du, since he’s kind an idiot, but the rest of the family–his father, brother, and sister–simply cannot ignore the fact that Hyun-seo may be alive, and is being held hostage by the monster in a Seoul sewer system.
But there are further complications–the city is under national quarantine thanks to alleged presence of a deadly virus, and the Park family are supposedly infected. They manage to escape the quarantine, but as such become fugitives of the law, making their journey to the center of the sewage system all that more dangerous. They remain persistent, though, and do all that they can to get Hyun-seo away from her mutant captor and back to safety.
Why isn’t the government helping out? If there is possibility of rescue, wouldn’t the authorities want to act on it? That’s where the next big theme comes into play–Orwellian distraction. There is obviously a deadly monster on the loose, and it’s likely the creation of American incompetence, so naturally there has to be a “cover up” of sorts. There are moments when we get to see “the big picture,” but they aren’t the driving force behind The Host. Like any political commentary of decent worth, it spends more time showing us glimpses of the chaos rather than explaining it all, allowing viewers to figure things out on their own.
Which brings us back to the Park family, who care nothing of this political unrest; they have a rescue operation to execute, after all. They’re a dysfunctional bunch, too. Gang-du is portrayed as a half wit who falls asleep all the time. His brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is an unemployed drunk who moonlighted as a political activist during his college years. Sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) is an award-winning archer–a national sports celebrity of sorts. The patriarch, Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), is the glue that holds them all together, but even he isn’t without his faults–it’s revealed later on the film that he was quite the party animal in his younger days, and therefore was an absent father at times. They can’t stand each other, but as this film shows, even the most broken families can come together when there’s so much at stake.
Their banter is also often hilarious, but the laughs are never cheap. They talk to each other like any family would. The Host is littered with dark humor, barely nudging a comedic genre classification, but moments of genuine terror and suspense keep the enterprise squarely grounded in its monster movie roots. It doesn’t spoof the concept like other better-than-B-movies like Slither or Eight Legged Freaks, but rather uses believable dialogue to keep the laughs coming. It’s little things like this that make The Host a smart film among hundreds of stupid ones.
The technical aspects are predictably impressive, thanks to an effective blend of CGI and practical effects, but it’s the family dynamic that really makes The Host a must-see monster movie. It evokes the best elements of the tried-and-true sci-fi formula of putting real people in extraordinary situations. If the premise sucks you in, it’s the excellent characters that will keep you there, and your intelligence will remain happily intact by the time the credits roll.