There is a moment in THE HOST where director Andrew Nicchol makes a catastrophic decision. The conceit of the film is that one human body is being occupied by two entities – an alien occupier who now thinks and acts in the human body and the original host who still exists and communicates mentally with this alien who has taken over the body that was once hers. The story calls for the two to have mental conversations throughout the film, a continuous dialogue that neither person can shut off. It’s the type of hook that comes organically in literature but is a trickier proposition to film. Still, there are a number of ways to handle this. You could use some formalist techniques to show the debates running in the brain for instance. Tricks of lighting perhaps. Or you could find subtle ways to communicate what is going on between the two entities. Or perhaps something else entirely, after all I’m not in charge of this $40 million production.
The easiest and worst option would be to have the character speaking aloud and arguing with herself like a lunatic while a corny echoy voice-over overemphasizes every single line delivery. It’s the type of stuff soap operas are made of. Sadly, that is exactly the route Nicchol chooses to go. As soon as this became apparent, I sat in the theater, shocked that any director as experienced as he would take such an easy. inadequate and laughable route. Involuntarily, I found myself making my objections known, just like the lunatic alien that was talking to herself on screen. “Oh no,” I said, and then a few seconds later a more emphatic, “Oh no!” Understand, this is no mere bad decision, but a make-or-break moment. This is the main narrative point on which the rest of the film hinges and it would irrevocably tarnish every moment in the film thereafter if handled poorly. It spells disaster for the film as a whole and it occurs a mere three minutes into THE HOST.
As mentioned, THE HOST is a unique spin on the alien body snatchers trope made famous by Robert A. Heinlein and Jack Finney. Earth has been almost completely occupied by this alien force who are not evil. They are a race that “experiences” other worlds by occupying their hosts. Through their point of view, humanity was headed for destruction and they are insuring the continued existence of the species. In other words, they are eliminating humanity in order to save it. It’s for our own good and they would not dream of raising their hands in anger. The aliens call themselves “souls,” a benevolent and altruistic force that inhabits the body.
There is one exception. Seekers are the ones tasked with finding remnants of the human resistance. The Seeker in this film (Diane Kruger – INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, NATIONAL TREASURE) takes a special interest in our protagonist. Wanderer is the name of the soul that now inhabits the body of Melanie Stryder (Saorise Ronan – HANNA, THE LOVELY BONES). She is impressed with Melanie’s refusal to give up her body as most humans have done and takes a special interest in locating the pack of humans that Melanie lived with.
Wanderer isn’t happy with the situation either. It is when Melanie bombards Wanderer with mental images of her little brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury – A BAG OF HAMMERS, KNOWING) and her lover Jared (Max Irons – RED RIDING HOOD, DORIAN GRAY) that she is eventually swayed to leave her alien existence and seek them out in the desert. She locates the band of human survivors, led by Melanie’s Uncle Jed (William Hurt), but when she arrives, many of them see her as the enemy sent to infiltrate and destroy them. Throughout the film, she will have to win over the humans as she learns to deal with the crimes her species has committed. The humans in turn will have to relearn the act of forgiveness.
THE HOST is based upon a novel by Stephanie Meyer, author of THE TWILIGHT SAGA. And while that might be the moment that opens the floodgates to guffaws and “I told you so” snark, such judgments would be hasty. I read the book and while it certainly won’t be winning the Nobel Prize for Literature any time soon, it wasn’t half bad. In the transition to screen, many things were reworked, muddled or dropped altogether. Unlike most editing which must be done with any film adaptation, the choices about what to alter or delete seemed to be arbitrary and makes for a borderline incomprehensible mishmash of a film. Stephanie Meyer may be guilty of her share of literary crimes, but you can’t pin the failure of this film on her.
For one thing, the acting is terrible. Ronan, who has done exquisite work in ATONEMENT and HANNA does her best in her Wanderer scenes, but they are undone by the overacting voice-overs of the Melanie character. Kruger, such a revelation in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is downright hammy as the villainous Seeker (one of the biggest alterations to the book is the expansion of this role and the actions of this character). And being a Meyer story, there is a love triangle. Melanie still loves Jared, just as when it was just her calling the shots. Wanderer, who is eventually nicknamed “Wanda,” loves the more accepting Ian (Jake Abel – I AM NUMBER FOUR, PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS). Unfortunately, both characters are written so bland and performed so one-dimensionally that it’s hard to see what any woman would want with either of them, no matter what planet she’s from.
THE HOST is another crushing disappointment from Andrew Nicchol. I had initially hoped that if anyone could bring this material to the screen in an intelligent manner, he could. Nicchol is responsible for a couple of the better smart sci-fi films out there, films which use fantastical conceits to share very human stories. His GATTACA used genetic engineering to tell a story about the triumph of the human spirit. 2011’s underrated IN TIME used the notion of time as currency and combined it with a BONNIE & CLYDE theme to spell out the inherent sin and inequality of capitalism. But when Nicchol stumbles, he stumbles big. S1MONE could have taken any number of its plot points to spin a wicked satire, but instead took the least inspired road possible. LORD OF WAR was a slight improvement. But what could have been a revolutionary expose about the arms dealers that all nations, good and bad, deal with, took a predictable narrative approach and segue into heavy moralizing. THE HOST may be his biggest blunder yet in that it falls flat on its face before its barely out of the gate.
THE HOST is a big sloppy mess. It picks its narrative strands at random and there is no sense of plot advancement or character depth. By the end of the film, when Melanie is referring to Wanderer as her “sister,” it is not as it was in the original novel. You do not get the sense that the two have been on a strange and emotional journey together. Instead, she says it because the script tells her to. ½★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence
– Running time: 2hrs. 5mins.