Giant monster movies are all about spectacle. Buildings crashing down, a desperate military throwing everything they have at the threat, and maybe even a good old monster on monster brawl. But it often seems the size of the danger is in inverse proportion to the quality of the human characters. Scientists and military personnel are a dime a dozen, and often interchangeable from film to film (I’m looking at you, Japan). Cloverfield billed itself as THE giant monster movie that finally focused on the impact on its characters. The problem? They were all obnoxious as hell. That, and a film from South Korea preceded it and actually did the job right.
The Host opens with an American military pathologist ordering the illegal dumping of formaldehyde into the Han River. Years later, after a few glimpses into the creature’s development, the viewer is introduced to a single parent named Park Gang-du. Park is mildly handicapped–still too much of a child himself to be a good father. While helping out at his own father’s snack bar, he notices a crowd. A strange creature is dangling from a nearby bridge, and it isn’t long before the beast swims to land and begins rampaging through the onlookers. Seeking his daughter, Park arrives just in time to see the creature dragging her into the depths. His family isn’t even given a proper chance to mourn before the military abducts the survivors, citing an unknown virus as the reason for the quarantine. Awaiting his fate at the hospital, Park is stunned to find his daughter calling his phone…
The synopsis above describes half of why the film works. Immediately, the viewer is given an emotional connection to its protagonist (played excellently by Song Kang-ho) and his plight. But it’s the ensemble aspect of the movie that really sells it.
Park’s family are the only ones who believe his daughter is alive, and each one provides an element to a somewhat dysfunctional but loving family. Park is forced to step up and take responsibility for his daughter as a proper adult. His brother is a caustic, unemployed ex-activist and his sister is a professional archer with confidence issues. While these backgrounds are a bit unusual, the actors carry their roles so convincingly that each one of them becomes well rounded and believable. Even Park’s daughter proves to be quite likable in her few scenes. All this development makes the tension of each dangerous sequence incredibly high.
Despite a modest budget, the monster is a pretty impressive piece of work. Its body is a strange amalgam of fish and half-developed amphibian. The fact that it’s a twisted mishmash of normal animals blown up to the size of a truck actually makes it a good deal more unsettling than its larger counterparts. Its origin is also an interesting twist on the nuclear warning presented by so many kaiju films, providing a criticism of the American influence on South Korea instead.
The Host did very well critically and in overseas markets, but had a very short shelf life in the U.S. Nonetheless, it deserves every accolade. The Host is what every giant monster movie should look to for inspiration. There may be less devastation to ogle, but there’s a hell of a lot more heart.