Host, The (2013)
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol
Our planet is invaded by a race of aliens who can take control of our bodies. Nearly everyone is assimilated, but for a small group of human rebels intent on saving what’s left of the human race. As far as concepts go, it’s not an original one. We could probably make a fairly long list, varying from great to abysmal, of movies that follow this basic story structure. Now, we can add The Host to it.
Based on the book of the same name by Stephenie Meyer (yes, that one), The Host tells the story of a race of beings that call themselves Souls and the humans who are resisting them. The Souls are tiny and glowy and pretty in a spidery kind of way. And they weave themselves into their host’s nervous system and drive them around like a hijacked car. In return for room and board, the Souls repay the human race by wiping out all disease, restoring our dying planet, and dressing us all up like it’s 60’s Barbie and Ken. Apparently, aliens really dig the Mod aesthetic.
The film focuses on one particular Soul who calls herself Wanderer. She’s lived many lives (we’re told) in lots of different hosts, and they’ve brought her in and stuck her in the body of Melanie Stryder (Ronan) because they need her help. Melanie is one of those pesky humans who would prefer to remain in charge of her own body, and she knows where more of them are, and the Souls want to know what she knows. So, much like she’s supposedly done countless times before, Wanderer begins accessing Melanie’s memories in order to help complete the colonization. The problem is that Melanie hasn’t exactly vacated the premises, and what ensues is a lot of awkward backseat driving that eventually leads to Melanie and Wanderer each learning and changing and growing.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Wanderer starts experiencing Melanie’s emotions, most notably her love for her younger brother, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), and her boyfriend, Jared (Irons). It serves to weaken the Soul’s resolve when it comes to giving up their location. Also, Melanie is such a strong presence that she can occasionally regain fleeting control of her body and force Wanderer to do things like crash cars and slap guys. In turn, Melanie is being forced to see Wanderer as something more than just an emotionless invader.
I read the book when it was first published in 2008 and not at all since. I remember enjoying it. I don’t recall many specifics after five years, just broad strokes and feelings are left. I thought it explored some interesting ideas, I remember that. The alien race is portrayed as genuinely believing they are doing the right thing, that they’re helping humankind by making us into something better.
Because they are not evil monsters intent on using humans for food, or something equally nefarious, the line between good guy and bad guy can occasionally blur. Aside from the one Seeker we meet who’s determined to find the last remaining humans at seemingly all costs, these foes can be somewhat worthy of sympathy. They’re just trying to make everything nice and we keep shooting them with guns! Of course, they’re doing that by stripping away what makes us ‘us’, the very core of our being. It’s no coincidence that these beings are called Souls.
On the flip side, the humans just want to maintain their identity, their freedom of will. It’s an eminently understandable goal. And yet some of their behavior throughout the book illustrates the very barbarism and intolerance the Souls seek to ‘cure’ and occasionally makes you see the Souls' point. Apart from this exploration of the importance of individuality versus the furthering of common good, Meyer also manages to examine the nature of love.
The unique situation, with both Melanie and Wanderer technically inhabiting the same body and yet possessing distinct personalities, feelings, and opinions, allows for the introduction of what isn’t exactly a love triangle. Melanie loves Jared. Because Wanderer is inhabiting her body and has access to her memories and emotions, Wanderer is sort of in love with Jared by proxy. Her body (as it feels to her) responds to his touch; she can remember what it was like to fall in love with him, her heart speeds up in his presence. So there’s a love triangle between Melanie, Jared, and Wanderer.
But then there’s Ian (Abel). Ian is another rebel who becomes sort of fascinated by the Soul’s behavior. He didn’t know Melanie before, so he’s only ever known her as Wanderer, and the more time he spends with her, the more he falls for her...Wanderer. Not the body. Although I’m sure the fact that Melanie is a cute chick doesn’t hurt. Wanderer feels the same way about Ian, after they get over that awkward moment when Ian tries to strangle her when she first arrives, of course. And because Wanderer has feelings for Ian, her body responds when he touches her or kisses her, which Melanie is not at all happy about because that’s her body and it’s supposed to only be doing those kinds of things with Jared. Jared’s not too thrilled about it either. I have no idea what kind of shape that makes. A diamond? An asterisk? Whatever, it poses interesting questions about the physical and intellectual aspects of love.
All of that is what I liked about the book. It made me think, and I enjoy books that make me think. And Meyer is good at creating likable characters, which she did again here. (Ian was my particular favorite.) But did any of that get translated to the screen?
Some of it did, I’m glad to say. When asked to review the film for DC, I felt a brief sinking sensation. In case you’ve forgotten (I promise I haven’t; I still sometimes wake up in cold sweats wondering what they’re were doing to Jackson Rathbone to get that look on his face), I reviewed several of The Twilight Saga films. And those were, at best, just bad. At worst? I still shudder to recall. So I steeled myself for another painful experience as I pulled into the theater parking lot.
I’m happy to say the movie isn’t as horrible as I expected it to be. There are things it got right. Saoirse Ronan actually has some wonderful moments as Wanderer where she really manages to convey the reality of this alien being inside a confusing human body and beginning to question things she’d long held as truths. All of my favorite moments in the film, which there weren’t many of, admittedly, featured Ronan channeling Wanderer. Oddly, I didn’t really like her as Melanie. She came across too fragile.
William Hurt, Frances Fisher, and Diane Kruger were all really well cast for their roles (Jeb, Maggie, and the Seeker, respectively). It’s too bad they're only paper thin. While it doesn’t really harm the film, except in the instance of Kruger’s Seeker, I think it bears pointing out. It should be illegal to have the awesome Frances Fisher on set and do so little with her.
But that’s not the big problem with this movie. And it bugs me to have to repeat myself, but it is, essentially, the same exact thing I had a problem with in the Twilight movies. Meyer writes predominantly in first person, which takes you right into the mind of the main character. It works great in this instance because inside her head is where the struggle between Melanie and Wanderer is taking place, and mentally is how both of them are changing as they grow to know each other, which happens because they have mental conversations. So much of this book is the internal workings of the dual protagonist and is extremely difficult to translate to the screen. It results in a lot of awkward whispering and voice-overs.
My second biggest issue with the film is that it lacks a sense of time. A lot of the sweeping desert shots are beautiful, and yet nothing seems to change. We don’t really get any feel for the passage of time. It gives the impression that things are happening a lot quicker than they are. During one scene, a distressed Wanderer retreats to her room and stares into the middle distance. She’s argued with Melanie and feels betrayed by the humans. There’s an odd shot of her superimposed on vast vistas of desert, and then Jeb wanders in and tells her she shouldn’t try and starve herself. There’s only one meal beside her and she’s in the EXACT SAME position she was just in when she ran into the room and sat down. She doesn’t look dirty or uncomfortable, despite the fact that she’s in a human body that has certain bodily needs.
For all intents and purposes, it seems as if perhaps a few hours has passed. In reality, or in the book at least, it was three days. That feeling of time passing without really passing pervades the whole movie. It makes things that should be building tension - Ian and Wanderer’s growing attraction, for example - sort of come out of left field. There’s no build-up over time, even movie time. It’s just presented to us as a fait accompli after the two share a couple of scenes together (one of which is the aforementioned attempted strangulation, let’s not forget). It’s almost never nighttime in the movie. I think we see three nighttime shots, and at least one of them is a flashback. When it’s never night and your characters don’t change clothes, you need to do something to indicate time has gone by, and writer/director Andrew Niccol totally dropped the ball on that one.
There are other issues. There’s some really stupid dialogue. I don’t know if the blame for it lies at the feet of Meyer or Niccol, since I don’t remember the book well enough to know if the lines that felt awkward or out of place were in the book and just bad, in the book and taken out of context, or possibly not in the book at all and original to Niccol. Given that the few genuinely touching or funny lines of dialogue tended to instantly recall the particular scene in the book to mind, I’m willing to bet it’s one of the latter two. The same thing happened in the Twilight movies. Lines that worked perfectly well in the context of the book, when severed from their connective tissue and set in the middle of a completely different scene, sound really awkward.
There’s also some acting that would make the packaging isle at Staples jealous. This would be a bigger problem if anyone but Saoirse had many lines, but luckily they really don’t. William Hurt gets a few as the wise old man. Even phoning it in, Hurt’s usually pretty good. That’s not to suggest he’s phoning here. He isn’t. But he’s not doing much of anything else either.
So, what is the verdict at the end of the day? Well, it’s not terrible. It even had a few brief moments where I chuckled, and one where Ronan made me tear up a little. There are some nice looking shots, the aesthetic of the alien culture is interesting, and there is decent acting in some scenes. I don’t hate myself for having watched it. I just don’t really care. I’ll most likely have completely forgotten this was a movie at all in a few months' time. If you’re a die-hard Meyer fan or have ticket money just burning a hole in your pocket and need a way to while away two hours, go for it. Otherwise, just save yourself the time and forget about it now.
2 1/2 out of 5