Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s The Host opens this holiday weekend with star Saoirse Ronan (Hanna). Adapted from Twilight author Stephenie Meyer’s sci-fi novel of the same name, The Host centers on Melanie Stryder (Ronan), one of the last human survivors of an alien invasion. Unfortunately for Melanie, she’s quickly captured and implanted with an alien parasite known as a Soul, which attempts to replace her consciousness and take over her body; Melanie isn’t having it. The two entities must learn to cooperate or face the loss of the loved ones they each hold dear.
While Niccol makes his best attempt at adapting this story, the fault lies with the source material. The tension that manifests in the first two acts rapidly diminishes in a lackluster conclusion that, while certainly an original take on conflict resolution, ultimately falls flat on screen. Hit the jump for my review of The Host.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit this up front: I’m not a fan of Meyer’s work. I read the original Twilight novel and saw its film adaptation. I gave her fiction a second chance when I heard about The Host, a sci-fi novel supposedly aimed at a more adult audience. What I found instead was a similar reliance on a love triangle (or square) of sorts that seemed to work out just peachy for everyone in the end without any real consequences. My major gripe with Meyer’s writing is her method of conflict resolution and the way that any established tension just leaks away by the conclusion. Unfortunately, these flaws plague the film treatment.
Niccol’s vision of The Host is a strong point of the film, which navigates between the sterile and shiny headquarters of the alien Souls, to the dusty, dirty and grimy hive of desert caves in which the last remaining humans seek shelter. The Souls drive sleek silver vehicles and wear blindingly-white outfits styled to the latest alien fashions while the humans are stuck with the clothes on their backs and whatever resources they can steal on nightly raids. The alien invaders, who actually appear rather non-violent for a body-snatching species, possess advanced healing technology in the form of simple spray canisters while the humans are susceptible to infections from even the most superficial of wounds. The visual distinction between the species is marked most overtly by the iridescent sheen of an infected human’s eyes. Sparkly things aside, the whole foundation of the alien invasion and the alien beings themselves falls apart upon even a cursory inspection. If they’re so non-violent, how did they manage to overthrow our global military force? If they’re so trusting, how did we not outmaneuver and overpower them long ago? That and more questions will certainly be answered in a “Everything Wrong with The Host” video in due time.
Back to the story. While Melanie certainly has more tenacity and confidence than Twilight’s Bella even when trapped in her own body, all of her drive and spirit ultimately comes down to a choice between two remarkably handsome young men: Jared (Max Irons) who was Melanie’s boyfriend after the invasion but before her own capture, and Ian (Jake Abel) who manages to fall for the Soul named Wanderer who is inhabiting Melanie’s form. (There is a nice character reveal for Wanderer in the film, but if my memory serves correctly, it’s slightly different from how it occurred in the book, which may miff fans slightly.) The resolution of this love triangle/square not only robs Melanie of her independent spirit, but it does so at the cost of the tension that had been brewing in earlier acts. It ends in a way that quite literally allows everyone to win: Melanie, Wanderer, Jared, Ian, the humans and the Souls. This sounds all cozy in theory, but in practice it lacks any dramatic weight.
Bringing some gravitas to the cast is William Hurt (Into the Wild), who plays a fantastic version of a post-apocalyptic grandfatherly figure who is simultaneously the voice of wisdom and restraint while being the main protector of the surviving group of humans. The young Chandler Canterbury (Knowing) turns in quite the surprising performance as Melanie’s younger brother Jamie and is asked to go through an extensive range of emotions throughout the film and nails each scene he gets. While Melanie is attempting to reestablish herself with the humans, she’s also being hunted by an ambitious Soul named Seeker, played by Diane Kruger (National Treasure). Kruger does alright in the role but is handcuffed for much of the film, scripted as a robotic Soul with little to do besides acting out her orders. She gets a chance to show her chops a bit towards the end of the film which gives a nice, but somewhat unsatisfying end to her arc. Abel is clearly the more comfortable of the two male leads, though Irons was given some of the more cringe-worthy lines of dialogue and unintentionally funny bits throughout the film. Ronan, as always, is a consummate professional who is able to play both roles with distinction and manages to bring a range of emotions to Melanie/Wanderer. She brings a feistiness to Melanie that elicits cheers and laughter, while playing Wanderer with a sense of innocence and compassion for her fellow beings, alien or human. It’s unfortunate that the otherwise competent cast didn’t have a stronger story to play in.
As a love story, The Host is likely to please the crowd who enjoys Twilight and similar fare, though it may very well find a broader audience since it’s a relatively superior film. The action scenes of The Host are more numerous and well-conceived than those in Twilight, but they’re still too few and far between for my tastes. The pacing is a tad on the slow side and could definitely have been trimmed down below it’s 125-minute run-time. There is, of course, the possibility that Meyer will strike paydirt twice and The Host could turn into another billion-dollar franchise, but for my money, I’ll pass on the lot.