Thanks to a slow start and faithfulness to the navel-gazing source material, Stephenie Meyer and the film adaptations of her Twilight series became a whipping boy for self-respecting moviegoers. It’s too bad — anyone who turned their noses at the later entries of the mega-succesful franchise missed some of the craziest camp since John Waters. That gave us hope when it came to the first non-Twilight Meyer adaptation: The Host, a romantic twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hope is quickly dashed only minutes into the latest from director Andrew Niccols (GATTACA, In Time), as The Host struggles with the same on-the-nose, emotional dizziness that plagued the pre-Breaking Dawn movies in the vampire saga.
Actually, it might be worse.
Whereas Twilight relied on dead-eyed gazing to convey the courtship between Bella and Edward, The Host actively works to externalize the inner monologue, spending most of the movie inside the head of its split-personality main character. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) was a regular Southern belle before Earth was invaded by a parasitic race of aliens known as “Souls.” The planet is quickly taken over by the amoeba-like critters, who inhabit the bodies of humans in hopes of correcting their imperfect tendencies. No luck, though — when Melanie is eventually captured by “Seekers,” a jumpsuit-wearing police force who help new arrivals find host bodies and crack down on the rebellious few without aliens in their skulls, she goes down fighting. A Soul known as “Wanderer” is placed inside of her, but against all odds, Melanie’s consciousness remains.
The two get off to a bumpy start, but before too long, Melanie has Wanderer empathizing with the human Resistance. She also feels guilty for taking over her host’s life, and decides to right the wrong by trekking out into the desert to reunite Melanie with the ones she loves. Like his past films, Niccols intricately builds the world of The Host. As Melanie and Wanderer hit the road like a Jekkyl and Hyde version of Thelma & Louise, we get a taste for the new Earth designed by the Souls. It’s basically communism: everything is shared, everything is free, and everyone lives in harmony (minus the pesky humans who refuse to share their headspace with a glowing amoeba from outer space). The world of the Souls is perfect, and Wanderer’s awakening to the idea that even utopias have their downsides is an intriguing arc.
But as Niccols and Meyer are both familiar with, a well-constructed setting and concept only goes so far. Ronan is an actress with broad range (see: Hanna) and elegant delivery. Here, her subtle work is bogged down by grating voiceover and a demand to react like a deer in headlights. The two personalities spend most of the film bickering at one another, Ronan’s rage-filled Southern twang blaring over her wide-eyed, observational approach to Wanderer. When they arrive at the desert cave retreat of the Resistance, The Host‘s voiceover problem reaches crippling levels. Turns out, Melanie had a boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons), before being captured by Seekers. He’s hanging with her uncle Jeb (William Hurt) in the caves, and less than enthused by Melanie’s extraterrestrial companion. Wanderer — renamed “Wanda” to fit in with the normals — is chastised by Melanie for even speaking to Jared, so she retreats into the arms of Ian (Jake Abel). Yes, when Earth is overrun with alien beings and the last of the human race struggles to stay hidden from Seekers, there is still room for a romantic quadrangle… between two interchangeable hunks, an alien impersonating a human, and a disconnected voice.
The movie is littered with missed opportunities, seemingly uninterested in diving into the character-driven side of the elaborate science fiction ideas it is built upon. Hurt does an impressive job turning the leader of the Resistance into a broken down survivor of the massacre, but his willingness to accept Wanderer into his society is just lazy storytelling. Likewise, the Seekers have their own conflicted figurehead: Diane Kruger’s nameless hunter. Unlike her Soul coworkers, she has a thirst for human blood. She wants to wipe them out instead of aid them. It’s a lively twist that’s only addressed two-thirds into the movie, after Kruger has spent most of her screentime driving a shiny sports car and scanning mouton vistas with her bright blue Seeker eyes.
There are moments that impress. Niccols briefly opens up the scope of the movie by throwing in an adeptly shot car chase. The designs of the Resistance’s hideout and the Seeker technology are all precise and culled from logic. An intricate mirror system that directs sunlight down to an underground field of wheat — brilliant! But in the end, The Host is like its central character: a vacant husk, completely bewildered inside and out, with the faint sound of a good idea trying to scream its way through. Niccols and Meyer’s team up isn’t a terrible movie, it’s a meandering one. The Souls might be right to invade us — we could use a bit of direction.
[Photo Credit: Open Roads Films]