Given the left-field choices of helmers for some of the Young Adult lit adaptations, you’d think the failures would be more interesting than they are. Then again, Andrew Niccol garnered notices early on as both writer (The Truman Show) and director (Gattaca), but since then his reach has exceeded his grasp. He’s continued to stretch for more cerebral fare but usually ends up botching it. But surely he could lend a few morsels of food for thought to this attempt at extending Stephanie Meyer’s movie life beyond the Twilight franchise? Well no, not really.
Niccol’s previous picture In Time was all premise and no pay-off. So too here, there are enough philosophical contradictions to eke something interesting from the alien invasion plot. The E.T.s are parasitic in nature, attaching themselves to unwilling human hosts and (invariably) squishing their consciousnesses in the process. The tell tale sign of this presence in a host is the manifestation of silver circles the pupil of the eye (surely contact lenses would be an effective method for infiltrating enemy humans?). And the consequence of this bloodless invasion? There’s peace on Earth.
It isn’t a new concept. Invasion of the Body Snatchers tackled it to varying degrees of success in all four of its versions. If everyone’s the same and content, surely that’s a worthwhile sacrifice for individualism and conflict? Generally speaking (The Host aside), this theme has been employed in simplistic terms, whatever the philosophical or political backbone of the question in the given moment (communism, or consumerism, militarism). The threat is to the creative influence and the ego, typified by the sort of monologue where Captain Kirk explains the rich differences that make humans distinct to an uncomprehending machine or race (or Spock expressing admiration for this imperfect species). It would be much more daring to posit a tale that took the alternative view, that we deserved what we got. Or a nuanced view, where there weren’t easy answers. Instead, Meyer has opted for the most straightforward option and taken the path towards the easiest solutions. And Niccol has done nothing to stem that flow.
When Melanie Stryder (Saorise Ronan) is inflicted with an alien “Soul” (called Wanderer) she fails to wink out of existence, surviving to engage in back-and-forth with her infiltrator. Wanderer gradually comes round to Melanie’s way of thinking and, having escaped to the hideout of her former human enclave, she and they are faced with a variety of preconceptions about each other, none of them explored with particular skill. Meanwhile Seeker (Diane Kruger), an alien bent on exterminating the resistance, is on Wanderer’s trail.
Kruger’s is the most interesting and least explored character; Seeker also clearly has a conscious human presence remaining within, motivating her bloodlust, but it’s never clear how one of such an overtly non-violent species comes to this point (the obvious spur is infection by a dirty human mind, but this is left hanging). Meyer doesn’t seem like much of a science fiction author (I make no judgement on her literary abilities, not having read any of her novels; I can only go by the adaptations) as the metaphors are entirely on the nose (calling your aliens Souls; really?) Whether we’re supposed to see a direct parallel between Meyer’s Mormonic beliefs (the spirit’s pre-existence) and the alien Souls is questionable (an essence that lives through many lives over thousands of years incarnating in host bodies sounds an awful lot like reincarnation), but the essentially benign universe of her religion may be found in the ball-dropping of the movie’s resolution.
More than any extrapolation of her beliefs (which would at least engage the mind), the most unrewarding aspect of Meyer’s work is also the reason for her success; the teen romance. With The Host, we have confirmation that the love triangle (or love quartet, if you will) is her staple ingredient. Melanie is in a relationship with hunky Jared (Max Irons, not a chip off the old block) but, when she returns, Wanderer finds herself yearning for Ian (Jake Abel). If The Host has one thing going for it, it’s that there’s no one here as terrible as Taylor Lautner (Irons is wooden, but not so much that he causes unintended hilarity with his every expression). Ronan is much much better than her material, but that’s a given. That said, this might be the first time she’s been dragged down by it. Her performance as Wanderer is very good, affording her a depth that certainly doesn’t present itself in the dialogue, but Melanie’s a complete disaster. Whether or not the interior monologue worked on the page, it’s fails miserably on screen. Maybe there was a way to present Melanie’s inner voice without it become unintentional comedy, but adding a post-effects echo wasn’t the answer. When one of her suitors (I forget which) asks, “Is there anyway she can give us some privacy?” it summons the ghost of Innerspace. But that was supposed to be funny. Melanie is whip smart, quick-witted and sassy; she’s incredibly annoying, basically. That is, when her arguments with Wanderer over boys aren’t causing chuckles.
The dialogue is rotten all over. It has to be experienced to be truly savoured. Examples include “He tried to kill you. Don’t you dare smile at him”, “You tried to kill me and now you’re protecting me”, “There’s a war raging in you, Seeker” and best of all, “Kiss me like you wanna get slapped” (there are all sorts of things wrong there, but hopefully they’re self-evident). When an old pro like William Hurt is delivering it (when Wanderer suggests his Uncle Jeb is either a genius or crazy, Melaine responds “He’s both” – that one’s a golden nugget, right there), you can almost believe but too much of the material rests on younger shoulders and none of them are up to Ronan’s standard.
Structurally, this is a dog too. Having escaped the Seeker, Melanie/Wanderer hides out in some fibreglass caves for the duration. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer makes the desert vistas glossy enough, but the sets only ever look like sets. The Souls’ technology is slight and shiny (it couldn’t be much more, since this is a relatively low budget movie; just as well, as it barely made it back in box office), but there’s the occasional neat nod to their social structure that begs for more explanation. Instead there’s only moribund canoodling. Visiting a supermarket for supplies, the fugitives leave with a trolley full of goodies; there’s no checkout because the aliens have no need for money. They have no need for advertising either; in a nod to Repo Man, all the goods are in unadorned and simply labelled packaging. Even the building itself is concisely announced as “store” along its frontage.
Obviously, given its failure, Meyer’s attempt to create another romantic tangle lacks the archetypes and clearly defined forbidden love that made Twilight so successful. The indifference to The Host either shows how fickle audiences are, or their tastes are highly specialised. Studios won’t stop adapting Young Adult fiction on the basis that, as long as the costs aren’t preventative, the next one might just be the next Hunger Games or Twilight. How this one’s failing affects the author’s plans for sequels, I don’t know (or care). There doesn’t seem much need for another, as she’s repeated Twilight’s quirk of ensuring all parties go away happy. There’s some guff about Wanderer wanting to end it all, only to be shown the error of her thinking by insightful humans. But since her mind-set makes is incoherent anyway, it washes over with no impact (“You haven’t killed a body, you’ve given it life!”; how very convenient and consequence-free). Really, this is no more risible than the Twilight movies; its biggest offence is that it’s rather dull. My suggestion is, if you want to see a movie called The Host, check out the Korean flick with the giant flobblely creature.