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
Andrew Niccol is a filmmaker that has earned my respect and my hard-earned money. After The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War, this guy has me hooked. I forgive him 2002’s S1mone, which had some good ideas in need of a better plot. Lo and behold, his latest film, the sci-fi thriller In Time, falls victim to the same issue. Niccol’s premise is more intriguing than the people onscreen.
In the near future, science has solved the age-old question or mortality, for a price. Every human has an internal clock somehow embedded in his or her arm. It kicks in at age 25 and then people have one year remaining. Time is the only currency that matters. People work jobs to add minutes to their time. When it comes to a cup of coffee or a bus fare, you pay in minutes off your time (a hooker says, “I’ll give you ten minutes for an hour”). The rich are well stocked in time but the poor must fight every day just to keep alive. Sam (Justine Timberlake) works in a factory just to make ends meet. His mother (Olivia Wilde, we should al be so lucky) gives her son an extra 30 minutes for his lunch; humans can “pass” time from one to another through touch. This will come back to bite her. One day Sam meets a tall dark stranger who’s lived for over 100 years and is tired of it all. He donates all his time to Sam. This is a no-no in the future. The timekeepers are a police force, lead by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), that polices time allowances. They’re paid to basically make sure that time remains the property of the upper class. Sam hobnobs with the elites, including Philippe Weiss (Vincent Kartheiser), a man who owns thousands of years. When the (Van Damme-less) time cops come looking for Sam, he makes a run for it, taking Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) as his hostage. The two eventually fall for one another as they dash across the country stealing time.
In Time has all sorts of ideas running through its system. What it doesn’t have it much of a plot to go with its heady sci-fi setup. Will is a fugitive but he never really formulates any sort of tangible plan. There’s no higher plot or goal here other than “sticking it to the man” but what exactly does that mean in this context? I understand he’s upset about losing a loved one, but his plan for vengeance or justice or whatever you want to call it lacks needed clarity. It feels like he and his cohort are just making it up as they go along. The film is at its worst when it descends into a populist, sci-fi Bonnie and Clyde, where Sam and Sylvia storm these time banks and redistribute the minutes, becoming heroes to the day-to-day drudgers. The ease that these two people have at knocking over bank after bank, armed only with a handgun, seems hard to swallow. The banks aren’t going to have tougher security especially after word gets out? Niccol adds plenty of chase scenes to fill out his plot but it doesn’t do much more than pad a half-baked story. The end confrontation goes in a direction I shall shamefully describe as “action movie idiocy.” You’re going to tell me that a timekeeping pro doesn’t pay attention when his clock is minutes away from death? Furthermore, I’m stunned that the people onscreen don’t act with more urgency when their time runs out. When death is on the line, I imagine a human being would resort to any kind of irrational desperation just to get a few minutes more, yet In Time shows a demoralized populace that just seems to give up. That makes the heroes-as-revolutionaries storyline even more implausible. Here’s a tip to Niccol: if it’s Sylvia’s last day on Earth, maybe you don’t have her racing for her life in heels. I’d think the gal would have purchased some decent running shoes by this time.
The ideas presented are compelling, though I wish Niccol had continued to push further. The social satire is pretty on-the-nose about the class system. I would have liked Niccol to be more biting in his social critique, perhaps carving up the rich as more venal than pampered. It’s true that they can live forever… unless something violent happens. This may be the future but there’s still no cure for a bullet to the head. The rich may live but they must live in sheltered, insular communities; a life encased in bubble-wrap. There is much potential there that goes unexplored. I also wanted a global sense of what was happening. Is time traded on the stock market? Are there different values placed on human time based upon geography? Is a Japanese life more valuable than a Ukrainian? The glimpses we do get about how the world operates are enticing and clever. The time roadblocks, tolls asking increasing amounts of time to pass into more affluent communities, feel authentic to the world and a cruel way to limit class mobility. When Sam pays for his expensive dinner he tells the waitress, “And take a week for yourself.” The timekeepers are only allotted a day at a time, so they can’t get carried away (I think it’s the futuristic equivalent of having the pizza delivery guy only have twenty bucks on him so he’s less likely to be the victim of theft). For the most part, In Time feels like it has some of the neat sociological quirks down but misses the psychological ramifications of its premise. People stop aging at 25. What does that do to a person’s sense of self? What about the peculiarities of dating? There’s definitely a sexual farce waiting to be written here. But let’s focus on the main dilemma – scrapping every day for just enough to stay ahead of the countdown. It’s an apt allusion to the working poor, but we never really see the tremulous stress that such a situation demands. This is life and death stuff, folks. The panic of inflation should also have been something Niccol paid more attention to. Just upsetting their time budgets could rock people’s world. There’s a lot more human drama inherent in this story that Niccol ignores, or flat out dismisses, for some standard Hollywood frills, namely chases and contrived romances.
Timberlake has shown that he has some chops when it comes to acting in shrewd supporting roles (The Social Network, Black Snake Moan). His skills aren’t really well utilized by In Time. The role of Sam is pretty bland, lacking edge or depth. This part could have been played by anyone not befitting Timberlake’s genetic credentials. Timberlake can make a credible action hero, though his charm covers up for his lack of intimidating presence. There is one regrettable moment where he wails at the death of a loved one, and it hits the wrong notes and feels laughably awkward. Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) also turns on a dime from being a scared hostage to a romantic partner. Her role gets reduced to being dragged by the hand by Timberlake; she’s human luggage. Murphy (Inception) does a fine job of being a dogged, Tommy Lee Jones-style pursuer. Kartheiser works that reptilian sleaze he’s perfected on Mad Men. The guy is like a younger version of Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Daybreakers), possibly the most reptilian of all living actors. The strangest part about casting is that it’s an Alpha Dog reunion (Timberlake, Seyfried, and Kartheiser all had supporting roles).
In Time is a better idea than a movie, and it’s an idea that deserves more examination. Niccol’s film has some interesting ideas and concepts, but it seems too slavish to a typical Hollywood blockbuster boilerplate. The characters are pretty bland and the thrills are too. I wanted to spend more time in this brave new time-obsessed world; I just wanted to spend it with other characters. The populist Bonnie and Clyde plotline doesn’t seem to gel. If the rich can control the arbitration of time, why don’t they just ungodly raise the price of things? In a a generation or two, the rich will weed out all lower classes thanks to near literal social Darwinism. The social commentary is a bit heavy-handed and simplistic. I wish Niccol had ditched his young heroes/lovers and explored the particulars of his world more, especially the portent psychological implications. In Time doesn’t feel like a complete movie, just a finished one. Ultimately, the film’s greatest sin may be that it wastes too much of your own time.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Andrew Niccol is back in my cadre of cool. He’s responsible for two awesome movies (Gattaca, The Truman Show) and one very lackluster Hollywood satire (Simone). But now the man is back and Lord of War is a startling look into the amoral world of international arms dealing. The film is enthralling as Uri (Nicolas Cage) narrates us about the ins-and-outs of his world a la Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Not to be outdone by a juicy narrative by Niccol the writer, Niccol the director adds lots of stylish flash to his tale. The opening watches the manufacturing and journey of one bullet, it’s ending destination in the head of a little African boy caught in the crossfire. It’s jarring, it’s powerful, and it’s direct. That’s Lord of War in a nutshell.
Nate’s Grade: A-