South Korea
Bong Joon-ho

Monster movies get short critical shrift, especially when they’re massive blockbusters that run on CGI like a Dodge guzzling leaded gasoline. But when the same film has a strong family component and undercurrents of environmental and political awareness, people pay attention. Such is the case with The Host, which has broken records in Korea and should even get the attention of audiences outside of geek circles when it comes to the States next year.

Look at the setup as a modern Gojira. An American military officer orders a subordinate to dump a load of chemicals into Seoul’s Han River, intentionally disregarding safety concerns because it’s the fastest, easiest way to dispose of the gunk. Some time later, a massive, mutated beast appears, decimates a huge crowd, and disappears again.

The monster is incredible, a marvel of joints, tentacles and mouthpieces that moves with massive lyrical grace and chews pedestrians like they were Pez. I’ve watched a lot of monster movies over the years and don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like this, especially in the way it swings through the undercarriage of a bridge or lopes across an esplanade dashing hapless picnic-ers to bits.

In the states, we like to trumpet our own films as standard-setters when it comes to effects, but most of them, even relatively advanced efforts like Spider-Man 2, pale next to this. Imagine the beastie from Deep Rising, slightly smaller, but so much more menacing.

That’s just the hook, though. There’s a loving family at the core of the film, and their desperate care for one another prevents the film from becoming just another CGI showcase. Dullard Park Gang-Du allows his daughter Hyun-seo to be taken by the beast and is later shocked to learn that she’s alive, trapped by the monster. With his father, brother and sister (a champion archer), Gang-du escapes the inept authorities and mounts his own search for Hyun-seo.

The action is ridiculous, but Bong Joon-ho maintains such a fraught desperation throughout the search that you can’t help but be swept up by the family’s fear and, eventually, exultation. The only complaint with The Host is that it stretches a bit thin during the second act, during the dog days of the search. But the family is real enough that I was willing to stick with them, and Joon-ho’s command of the monster genre so assured that I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Host again.

8 out of 10