‘The Host’ has a solid cast, but a shaky, nonsensical foundation
Directed by Andrew Niccol
Written by Andrew Niccol
World-building is key in storytelling, but no more impactful than in the science-fiction genre, where authors literally introduce us to new universes, brand-new places for characters to exist and grapple with conflict. Andrew Niccol, writer of Gattaca and The Truman Show, is no stranger to opening doors to odd and unfamiliar environments with rules audiences need to be clued in on. And yet, as the writer and director of The Host, a moony, faux-melodramatic romance with a supernatural backdrop based on a novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, he struggles with being able to explain the logic of a world in which not too much happens.
The Host opens as a parasitic alien race has descended on Earth and taken over all but a few resistant humans. One such rebel, Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), chooses suicide over being possessed, but after her attempt to kill herself by jumping out of a hotel is unsuccessful, an alien named Wanderer is inserted inside her brain, in hopes of plumbing Melanie’s memories to find the whereabouts of the other resistance fighters. However, Melanie hasn’t left and refuses to go away quietly, so she leads Wanderer to the rebellion, if only to check on her little brother Jamie, her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons), and her uncle Jeb (William Hurt). In the meantime, Melanie/Wanderer is hunted by an alien Seeker (Diane Kruger) who wants nothing more than to eliminate Melanie, a “weak” host.
Niccol sets himself up for confusion almost instantly, with a short narration from Hurt that establishes the idyllic world that has sprung up since the aliens arrived. Couple that with the humans acting overtly hostile to the same extraterrestrials who have cleaned up the environment, ended all wars, and eliminated poverty and hunger, and it’s almost disturbing how quickly you end up sympathizing with the possessors, not the possessed. That there is a resistance to the aliens, and that the aliens care about the resistance—even though one points out to the Seeker that they outnumber the unpossessed “a million to one”—makes no sense, and Niccol never tries to explain it. What does a resistance matter when they don’t act violently towards the aliens, simply hoping to hoard materials so they can survive in a near-primitive peace? The longer The Host goes on, the clearer it is that the world outside is less important than the attempt at a swoony love quadrangle on the inside.
Ronan is, as expected, a solid lead performer, though the Southern accent she uses as Melanie (represented either in flashback or as a voice shouting in Wanderer’s head) not only floats in and out but is laughably stereotypical. Still, as a woman meant to attract two young men, Ronan does well; if only she’d been given a meatier, more substantial, less one-note role. Irons and Jake Abel, as the young men in the romantic entanglement, Jared and Ian, are serviceable enough. It’s hard to judge their acting skills, as their dialogue never rises above rote and expected. Hurt and Kruger are also adequate, though both have been better and neither is allowed anything particularly challenging or even lively.
And though it may be dangerous to assume, it’s hard not to wonder if the blame lies with the source material. As director, Niccol isn’t very flashy, but doesn’t need to be. He often allows scenes to unfold too slowly, however, making The Host feel longer than it is despite being almost conflict-free. With Meyer’s novel, Niccol is less of a writer than a condenser. The first half-hour rushes so quickly through the relationship Melanie had with Jared or her sibling kinship with Jamie that we have no connection to them. Once Wanderer meets the rebels, she’s meant to be closer to the family she’s essentially being adopted into, but even there, the connections are all on the surface.
The Host is, in all honesty, a far more accomplished film than any of the Twilight movies, partly because it doesn’t rely on many obviously fake special effects and its cast doesn’t look or act as uncomfortable. But both the Twilight franchise and The Host have a juvenile, tittering attitude toward sex, as well as a basic emphasis on repression that only dulls the senses. Andrew Niccol’s career has been on a downward slant since the 21st century started, but what he does bring to The Host is a sense of futuristic, sterile style. Visually, The Host is frequently decent. Logically, it falls apart instantly.
— Josh Spiegel