Host, The (United States, 2013)March 29, 2013
Sometimes with a movie like The Host, it's tough to determine whether the fatal flaws lie in the source material or the adaptation. Considering that the author of the source material is Stephenie Meyer, who singlehandedly defanged vampires and declawed werewolves in her Twilight series, and that the screenwriter/director is Andrew Niccol, the New Zealander who was at least in part responsible for Gattaca, The Truman Show, and Lord of War, I lean toward the former. As bad a storyteller as Meyers is, however, Niccol cannot be completely exonerated. Some of his "choices" in shifting The Host from page to screen are questionable at best. To work, The Host would have required a visionary interpretation rather than the mundane telling that Niccol opts for.
The "science fiction" backstory that establishes The Host is a bait-and-switch since this is much more Nicholas Sparks-lite than it is a reworked Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Because the movie is aimed at tween and early teen girls, all the icky stuff has been removed. What we're left with is a peculiar love quadrangle that might have evidenced some potential if the vertices had been sufficiently developed. There are some intriguing possibilities in the dual romance that forms The Host's backbone but those are left unexplored because they aren't appropriate for a PG-13 audience. Likewise, there are a lot of interesting questions about the alien invaders and their society, but those aren't touched upon. (One example: If the aliens take over human bodies and have sex, what about the children? Are they human, alien, or a hybrid, and what does that mean for the future?)
As the movie opens, we are informed that the world has been invaded by a peculiar species of parasite that enters a body through a slit in the neck and eradicates the host's personality. Humans are now an endangered species, with well over 99% of Earth's population having been converted. The remaining people, small clusters of rebels, are scattered and largely impotent. One of these dissidents, Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), is captured by a "Seeker" (Diane Kruger) when attempting to distract the aliens from finding her brother, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), and lover, Jared (Max Irons). Melanie becomes the host for an alien named Wanderer and the two struggle for control of her mind. Eventually, they reach a state of détente; when the Seeker threatens to remove Wanderer from Melanie's body, she escapes and goes in search of the rebels, who are led by her uncle, Jeb (William Hurt). When she finds them, she is not given a friendly welcome. Mistrustful humans like Kyle (Boyd Holbrook), Ian (Jake Abel), and Aunt Maggie (Frances Fisher) advocate killing her.
The most difficult task facing Niccol is how to represent Melanie, who is essentially a young woman with MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) - two minds in one body. There are numerous inventive ways in which this could have been approached (consider, for example, how Battlestar Galactica handled a similar situation) but Niccol opts for the most pedestrian option: voiceovers of Melanie "talking" to Wanderer in her mind. The cheesy nature of the dialogue, which is atrociously written, undermines any chance this has of being anything other than unintentionally funny.
The movie's structure is awkward. There's no real narrative thrust. The use of The Seeker as a "villain" who discovers her dark side isn't uninteresting but Diane Kruger lacks sufficient screen time to do anything compelling with the character and the climax of this aspect of the story, in addition to happening about a half-hour before The Host limps to its conclusion, is flat. The movie spends the majority of its running time attempting to develop romances between Melanie/Jared and Wanderer/Ian, but neither pairing is provided with sufficient opportunity to really capture the viewer's sympathy. In handling the love stories, either Meyer or Niccol (or both) has been inordinately impacted by Nicholas Sparks. To that end, we get two scenes of lovers kissing in the rain.
When it comes to acting, there's Saoirse Ronan and everyone else. Ronan is very good and gamely tries to do as much as she can with sub-B movie material. She plays it straight, which could be construed as a mistake since, had she gone over-the-top and done some scenery chewing, it might have allowed The Host to work on another level. Unfortunately, she's too good. No one else seems to be on the same page. Diane Kruger, an attractive and talented German actress who is perhaps best known for accompanying Nicolas Cage in his National Treasure hunts, continues a rather curious pattern of being mostly unable to act in English-language productions. William Hurt seems to be doing his best Jeff Bridges impersonation. And all of the younger males, including Jeremy Irons' son, have been chosen primarily for physical appeal (which makes sense considering the target audience).
Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Host is that it's worse in almost every way than any of the Twilight episodes. As cheesy and silly as those movies are, at least there's an element of fun to them. The Host is just one long slog with a minimal payoff. It's about two hours long but seems to go on forever. It's a safe bet that this wouldn't have gotten made if it wasn't for the success of Twilight but the film is unlikely to approach the earlier saga's box office success. I've experienced enough of Meyer at this point to realize that, no matter how talented the director who adapts her work, I don't want to see anything else with her name attached.
Host, The (United States, 2013)
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Boyd Holbrook, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol, based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer
Music: Antonio Pinto
U.S. Distributor: Open Road Films