the host (2006)
Fact: Monster movies are a freaking great time. No, seriously, that's not even an opinion, it's just an honest to goodness fact. When a flick revolves around monsters attacking people (and preferably devouring them) it, more often than not, makes for a great time to kick back and have some fun in your theater. These flicks were all the rage in the 1950's; when atomic energy unlocked its mysterious powers, the resulting radiation unleashed all sorts of vicious creatures that rained down upon us in punishment like biblical plagues. From giant ants in the sci-fi pic THEM! to the benevolent Klaatu's warnings in The Day the Earth Stood Still, atomic power seemed to be causing problems all over the place. Of course, nothing was as troublesome as what the Hiroshima bomb awakened on the shores of Japan; the terrible monster Godzilla. Well, 50 years later, it's Korea that has made a monster flick to stand with the best, not just because it's an awesome movie, but because it too builds its foundations on modern troubles like pollution and even SARS. With The Host, you get a fun flick with alot of humor, alot of thrills, and even some well-placed chills, that also has time for some great subtext. That, to me, makes from one hell of a ride.
It's something that many have admired about the goofy 50's sci-fi for a long time, and that many directors have been wondering how to recreate for almost as long. When Steven Spielberg directed his War of the Worlds re-make a couple of years ago, he thought he had found the answer in the threat of terrorism. It worked for the most part; his film was filled with images that resembled those of 9/11 and the prospect of the world as we know it coming to an end was something that was on people's minds (just like in the 1950's). However, there's something different about a group of people with differing ideologies trying to kill you than a faceless, mysterious power that man has perhaps mistakenly unlocked trying to kill you; the latter simply translates much easier into monster and alien flicks. (for the record, re-making a 50's flick with themes of paranoia like Invasion of the Body Snatchers would've been a much more fitting move for Spielberg, but I digress). In The Host, the reality of biological weapons and mysterious viruses growing from man-made pollution are the major themes; and the ideas of quarantine and containment of viruses like SARS, West Nile Virus and their ilk are at the core of what this flick taps into. Now THERE are some fitting building blocks for monster films once again; there's fear inherent to these ideas, and they play beautifully on screen. Just as beautiful are the obviously low-budget effects employed in the film, and yet it doesn't matter. The direction is so spot-on that we're able to dance around what might have looked pretty unconvincing in lesser hands, and the end product is just as exhilarating as the superior renderings in Hollywood mega-blockbusters. The direction is really the high point in this thing, and it's the way the tone of the film shifts so effortlessly from all-out humor, to deadly serious, to chillingly tense in mere seconds. The greatest accolade I can give is that none of it ever once feels out of place, it all swirls through the film like the man-eating monster itself. The monster, some sort of cross between a Komodo Dragon and maybe a Catfish manages the task of also being a campy great time (especially when it's first introduced) as well as really sending chills down your spine when things get vicious. I think the humor was lost on some of the members of the audience in my screening, during the first monster attack I distinctly heard one person behind me ask the people he was with why they were laughing. This is where The Host deviates from your average Hollywood fare and its in that separation that we find why it works so well. Unlike modern-era creature features like Independence Day or even the Godzilla re-make, this thing isn't just interested in being one type of film. It's a whole lot of genres mashed into one, and I say that's how it should be. This thing knows how to have fun.
And yet, I haven't even really gotten to the story yet, which is so elegantly simple, yet evocatively alive with all manner of subtext. It just centers on the family, a grandfather, his screw-up son, plus another intelligent son and a tennis-pro daughter, also his young granddaughter. This is really the tale of the screw-up son, who has also become a screw-up father, takes it up a notch when he loses his daughter to the monster. Luckily enough, she does not die but is being held in the monster's nest of sorts, and so the family sets off to find her. Where it goes from there is great and definitely full of surprises. The shots are well-done and really evoke a world gone down the drain due to contamination. This thing just makes its viewer feel dirty. I wanted to take a shower and maybe put on a radiation suit after watching it, but that's really the point. The scenes with the monster are shocking, the low-lit scenes in most of the rest of the film convey a great look of humanity in its dark hours. Juxtapose that with the sterile, white inside of the hospitals (which prove to be just as treacherous for our heroes as the monster-infested outdoors) and you've got a contrast ripe for satire. Indeed, some of the scenes, especially with a crazy, lazy-eyed general, recall Dr. Stranglove in their nuttiness. The direction makes fantastic use of this hodgepodge of a script and infuses every scene with plenty of the tone shifts we eventually come to expect. It's so great to see a film that simultaneously doesn't take itself too seriously but also doesn't let itself slip away and fall into sillyness either. That simply would have been unacceptable. I'm not really sure what to discuss about the film that won't give anything else away about it, it's a thrill-a-minute in its shifting plotlines and scenes, and I wouldn't want to take away the enjoyment of any of it. It's just great to see an original film, not another freaking re-make, come in add itself to a genre like this. And really, as of late, it's been great to see foreign pictures stepping up and giving us some good genre entertainment, with the UK supplying a double-dose of horror and sci-fi success with The Descent and Children of Men last year. Let's hope we get more of the same this year, things are looking up. And so that's about it, the flick has it up front with the entertainment value and its got brains underneath it all, it's what I call a damn successful film.
Check it out in theaters if you can manage it, or if not, DVD will be great (though it won't do that monster justice on a TV screen). It's apparently the most financially successful movie of all-time in its native Korea, but I don't see it doing any out of this world numbers here in the states. Too bad, this thing deserves to be seen. My only hope now is that it might catch on before they decide to commission the almost inevitable re-make. The day some fresh-out-of-film-school Hollywood hack is given this gem to screw up will be a sad one indeed. But, in brighter news, The Host is a great success, and one that should be savored here and now. Check it out and have yourself a great time, I guarantee you will.