The Host (2013)
It’s impossible for me to ever separate The Host, a sci-fi would-be romance based upon the best-seller by dubious author Stephenie Meyer, and the demise of famous film critic, and personal influence, Roger Ebert. On April 4, 2013, America’s most prominent film critic, a man who with Gene Siskel changed the face of film criticism and the dialogue with movies, died after his cancer had returned. Upon hearing the news, I was overcome with grief and shed a few tears for the loss of a great writer and a great man who influenced a generation of online film critics like myself. Then I saw what was Ebert’s last published film review — The Host. Knowing his last review on this Earth is this awful movie, that it may be the last new release he ever saw, well it just feels ignoble. The man deserved better and so does anyone else who watches The Host, a movie I saw the very day of Ebert’s death.
Set on earth years after an invading alien race has already conquered, life isn’t too bad. There aren’t any wars or pollution or hunger. The aliens, looking like little glowworms, latch onto the spines of humans and use them as hosts. They control the bodies of the humans but some of us won’t go down willingly. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is an 18-year-old gal who fights as part of a resistance movement, led by her Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). The aliens abduct her and Melanie’s body gets a new owner – Wanderer, also referred to as Wanda. Good old Melanie is still in her head, feisty, and goading Wanda into finding Melanie’s family hiding out in the desert with Jeb. Also there is Melanie’s boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons), who is upset that his girlfriend has become “one of them.” Ian (Jake Abel), on the other hand, is adjusting well to the change, as he falls for Wanda and she him. In between these hormonal complications, Wanda is being chased by the appropriately named Seeker (Diane Kruger), who is deadest on bringing some human-style violence to Wanda/Melanie and the resistance fighters.
The Host, like much of Meyer’s more popular Twilight saga, is a rather dramatically inert story that just seems to exist with little sense of momentum or direction or purpose, beyond providing another bloodless onscreen romance that ceaselessly finds unsettling messages to convey to young girls. Once again it all comes down to a stifling romantic triangle where none of the participants ever seems to work up the necessary passion to garner continual interest. There’s a bit more heavy petting going on but even when these people are having sex dreams, they imagine Melanie with her bra on (such a limited imagination). Please don’t confuse this as some implicit regret on my part that the movie didn’t sexualize its lead heroine (she’ll be turning 19 soon, so fear not pervs). At least the Twilight movies can be seen through the prism of pre-teen wish fulfillment. The Host, on the other hand, is just an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style sci-fi movie where no one seems that preoccupied with anything too urgent. If the aliens are really that gung-ho to root out the resistance fighters, why aren’t they looking for heat signatures? Why aren’t they studying truck movements? The fighters aren’t very stealth-like in their comings and goings either. Hell, why don’t they even just keep a lookout for people wearing sunglasses, an obvious sign they have something to hide. It’s like the aliens and the humans are simply just going about their business without any danger. That’s because the ultimate fulcrum with which all the plot hinges upon is the romantic whims of a teen girl teaching an alien how to love. Sigh.
The least successful adaptation is likely including Melanie in the action through the use of bratty voiceover. She likes to chime in with snide remarks and pushes Wanda away when she starts getting feelings of her own for another boy. It is simply unbearable. You ever been stuck in the car with a really annoying brat? That’s what it felt like. Now I realize that having the dueling voices was an easier prospect on the printed page, but a similar challenge was tackled with 2003’s Dreamcatcher when an alien possessed Damien Lewis. We had a visual representation of Lewis taking refuge inside his own head. That was better than watching him, and it pains me even now to type it, engage in an argument with himself where the voice of the alien adopts a British accent. Maybe we could have had a better visual representation of Melanie inside Wanda, or maybe something with mirrors, that’s always a good go-to visual for characters of dueling minds. As developed, The Host feels like Melanie’s strapped in next to you, providing incessant and annoying commentary, and all you want to do is tell the kid to shut up.
Given the world-conquering plot elements, I can’t help but think Meyer found one of the least interesting stories to tell within this world. The invasion aspect seems far more compelling a story to tell than one girl stuck in a love triangle. I suppose it’s because Meyer is bringing a different perspective to science fiction, but I found most of this movie to be unbearably boring. And her premise, while flawed, could have been workable. Learning to live a symbiotic relationship with an alien that controls your physical being, there’s plenty of room there to tell an interesting and insightful story. The issues of identity and control could be richly explored. Instead, we get Melanie liking one boy and Wanda liking another, and so Melanie fights from inside to stop Wanda from acting out her exciting new feelings. Given the scope of everything going on, alien invaders and underground resistance organizations, it all feels so slight and myopic and overindulged melodrama. I suppose the whole thing could be a metaphor for puberty, a teen girl whose body is taken over by an alien presence, causing her to act irrationally and deal with swoons of affection she doesn’t know how to properly handle, causing her to act out and alter her perceptions of herself. Then again, I may just be giving Meyer and the movie more credit than they deserve.
The saddest part for me was that Andrew Niccol directed this movie as well as adapted the screenplay. He is responsible for these characters, these plot beats, these samples of dialogue. This is the man who gave us The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War. Granted, Niccol’s last movie, 2011’s In Time was a great idea in need of a far better script, but I always have high hopes with this man given his track record. From a visual standpoint, he takes a few pages from Gattaca where everything in the world is sleek and shiny and looking like an orgasmic car commercial. The shimmering cinematography by Roberto Schaefer (Marc Forster’s longtime DP) is crisp with plenty of cool colors to signify the mood of our pleasant overlords. There are plenty of nice things to look at, and female fans will likely extend that compliment to the young men duking it out for Melanie/Wanda’s affections. It’s just that everything moves so glacially, so stubbornly slow, that the movie feels like it’s run out of gas long before it’s over. At over two hours, there desperately needed to be some judicious chopping with this movie’s flabby midsection. If you’re not a fan of Meyer’s book, Niccol fails to give you any tangible reason why you should care or keep watching. I even thought about leaving at one point, and that’s an urge I can usually quell, so that’s how monotonous it truly got.
It’s nice to see Ronan (Hanna) growing into the capable leading lady we all thought she could be, though this movie does her no favors (gone is the gangly awkwardness of The Lovely Bones). I understand that for the majority of the movie she’s playing Wanda, the alien controlling the body of Melanie. There are going to be certain limitations to this portrayal, but Ronan just sounds overly sedated for most of the movie. Then there’s her annoying voiceover, which dips into a Southern accent at several intervals. I guess when Mel gets mad it brings out her roots? Likewise with Meyer’s heroine du jour, Bella Swan, I just don’t see what all the fuss is about over this character. She’s a pretty plain heroine with courageous whims but it’s another example of a film where the supporting characters have to key us in on character traits we just aren’t picking up on our own.
I’m always puzzled when filmmakers decide to make their aliens so, well, alien. Independent evolution in a different star system is going to develop some funky designs, sure, but when you got magical glowworms as your sentient life, I find it hard to believe that they built all that super duper technology to achieve their world-domination. A glowworm made a spaceship? With its glowworm tentacles and its size of about three inches? At least the aliens on Star Trek looked like they knew there way around auto shop. For that matter, we’re in the future where everybody drives a crazy shiny vehicle no matter how off road it gets, but the stupid alien occupiers can’t master the tricky science of contact lenses? And this goes for the human rebels as well. The telltale sign you’re controlled by the aliens or not is the translucent blue ring around your iris, but why hasn’t either side just popped in some contacts to blend in? The aliens can master space travel but get squeamish about things touching their eyes?
The Host is another of Meyer’s poorly plotted, insipid melodrama that manages to be all about teen hormones except those hormones feels so hermetically sealed off. It’s another neutered romance, and this was supposed to be her so-called “adult book”? It’s the same themes and tropes from her non-adult Twilight series, just with a coating of sci-fi rather than supernatural. Even Niccol, admittedly in a bit of a slump, can’t save this picture, and ultimately the overly long, lightly plotted, and tremendously tedious affair lumbers to its predictable conclusion, replete with happy ending (let’s just say that Ian gets a hotness upgrade as far as his lover). The concept of an alien species stripping human beings of free will and living not just amongst us but within us, that’s a solid idea that could make for a compelling story. Meyer found the dumbest story to tell, her bread and butter, a love triangle where both guys have struck her at some point in the film (dwell on that). It pains me that The Host may have been Roger Ebert’s last movie. As far as I’m concerned, this movie murdered Ebert.
Nate’s Grade: D