Andrew Niccol is the best science fiction director nobody ever remembers. The writer and director of Gattaca, S1m0ne, and In Time — and writer of The Truman Show, as well — has a surpassing talent for the genre. He’s able to take broad, unsubtle metaphors and render them into beautifully entertaining stories. But it seems that there are some challenges too great even for Niccol’s skills, like adapting Twilight author Stephanie Meyer’s The Host.
I don’t know why Niccol chose to adapt Meyer’s novel rather than work from his own original material as usual, though I suppose he can be applauded for adapting it faithfully. The story lacks all of Niccol’s usual depth and insight, instead giving us another cheap, self-indulgent teen-romance that panders down towards the young women it targets as it appropriates genre tropes that it clearly doesn’t understand.
We could see the parasitic alien “Souls” as a rehash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers — indeed, Meyer claims that was her intent — but when they take over there’s a tell-tale azure ring in the host’s eyes, and we’ve lost the whole anyone-could-be-the-enemy aspect that gives the story all its punch. It’s like you took some horrifically powerful human-eating monster and then said that they just eat bunnies and deer and stuff. Alternatively, there’s the whole zombie idea, but the Souls are far from mindless and we never see a horde of them. And as for straight-up alien invaders, there’s no indication of a real external interference the Souls are meant to call to mind. There is nothing here but empty quotations of stories that actually do mean something.
And then we come to the other side of the setup: humans — and some humans in particular — are different from all the other civilizations the Souls have encountered because our emotions are just so darned strong. This has got to be one of the most overused sci-fi clichés of all time, and I hate it even when venerated classics like Star Trek wheel it out. It’s as hollow and whiny as saying the golden ticket must make Wonkabars taste terrible.
So when a Soul is implanted in pretty young Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), she’s one of those who fights back, and hard. Hers isn’t the most ridiculously blunt name; all the Souls seem to be named after their place in Soulciety. There are “Healers” and “Seekers” aplenty — the latter are charged with hunting down the few remaining unSouled humans — and Melanie’s own Soul asks to be called “Wanderer”, after its planet-hopping.
Melanie was caught while trying to escape her city to a safe haven out in the desert, and a Seeker (Diane Kruger) charges Wanderer with digging out Melanie’s memories. Meanwhile, Melanie asserts herself from inside her ex-head, finally convincing Wanderer to head off to join her brother, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), and lover, Jared (Max Irons), at their hideout, which is run by her uncle, Jeb (William Hurt).
Of course when she arrives Jared doesn’t trust her, and neither does anyone else in the hideout but Jeb, who luckily runs the place as a “benign dictatorship”. Gradually one of the other guys, Ian (Jake Abel), comes around to fall in love with Wanderer, and of course Jared is still in love with Melanie.
And this is what the movie is really about: a pretty girl getting passed between two pretty boys, each of whom wants a piece of her. There’s no real struggle of any sort to be construed as a point; even the hazy stabs at ethics are ultimately conveniences to be taken up when it suits the plot and discarded when they become inconvenient.
That all said, Niccol does make a beautiful film, and this is no exception. The Souls adopt a gorgeously clean, minimalist aesthetic, aside from an odd fetish for chrome plating. The sections shot in the New Mexico desert make the most of the landscape. But, beneath this attractive veneer, the underlying story is anything but what we’ve come to expect from this director.
The Host looks like Andrew Niccol, and it uses his voice to speak, but inside it has been taken over by a parasite. Superficially pretty, on closer examination it’s vapid, shallow, and empty. It strenuously asserts how exceptional it and those who like it are, never understanding — or possibly because on some level it does understand — how ridiculously boring and ordinary it is.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: it’s a tough call, because while Diane Kruger and Saoirse Ronan do have scenes together it’s really two aliens talking, and it’s not at all clear that human gender is really meaningful to them. I’ll give it a pass because I honestly don’t believe Meyer could conceive of characters who are not ridiculously male or female.