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Wouldn’t you know it, interplanetary teenage love is hard. That’s the gist of Andrew Niccol’s (“Gattaca”) new film, “The Host.” This should come as no surprise. After all, the movie is based on the novel of the same name by Stephenie Meyer, who penned everyone’s favorite sparkly vampire books. “The Host” is also only about as interesting as maudlin young love sounds, which is too bad, because the premise actually has a great deal of potential.
An alien race called Souls has taken over Earth. They’re squiggly little blobs of light who occupy our bodies, turn our eyes a creepy incandescent blue, and now outnumber humans a million to one. Those are not good odds for survival. Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) is one of the last remaining humans, travelling with her young brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), and her pasty, scrawny boyfriend Jared (Max Irons). Emaciated and pale, every young man in this movie looks like he has a burgeoning heroin addiction.
If you step back and look at the big picture, the world is totally super awesome now. Everyone is peaceful, no one is hungry, the environment is fixed, and most vehicles the Souls drive are cool and mirrored, including, but not limited to cars, motorcycles, and helicopters. But of course the trade-off is that you have no free will, and cease to exist when they take up residence inside your dome. So if that’s the kind of thing that bums you out, this Brave New World isn’t for you. The set-up is really dystopia light, mixed with a healthy dose of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
In order to save her loved ones, Melanie leads a group of oddly calm Souls away from Jamie. And because she’s fiercely independent—something you’re told again and again—she’d rather die than be taken over. So instead of giving in, she throws herself out of a window. But she doesn’t die. Remember, she’s a fighter who wants to live—this point comes up a lot. Because they’re from space, the Souls can heal her mostly broken body with a spray mist they have, and she is implanted with a Soul named Wanderer. Wanderer, however, is not alone in there. Melanie is still kicking around, and much of “The Host” is occupied watching a teenage girl argue with herself.
In a perfect world, this role would have provided Ronan the chance to play two characters at the same time, and stretch her acting muscles. She’s startlingly good in “Hanna,” but here she’s just another generic love-stricken kid. Albeit one with an alien in her head. Unintentionally funny at first, this back and forth—hearing Melanie’s voice echo inside of her skull, then Wanderer turning away, saying something quietly—gets old quick. And no one, human or otherwise, seems to think this is unusual behavior, or even notice it.
After implantation, the plan is to use Wanderer to tap into Melanie’s memories and track down the resistance, who literally live in a big hole in the ground in the desert. However, Melanie is super persuasive, and Wanderer, who has lived 1,000 years, has taken quite a shine to Earth. The two abscond in a stolen Volvo, heading back to what may or may not be the last surviving enclave of humanity. Re-acclimating to human society proves more difficult than imagined. They, of course, notice her freaky eyes, and only see an alien, not someone they used to know. And all the while, Seeker (Diane Kruger), more driven than her fellow Soul—for reasons you’re never certain of—doggedly pursues them.
The entire point of the story is to set up an awkward, and I mean awkward, love triangle. In reality the situation is more of a love square, because there are four parties involved. Melanie loves Jared, but doesn’t like that Wanderer is around when they kiss. Meanwhile, Wanderer has developed a space crush on Ian (Jake Abel), and Melanie hates it when they kiss, too. Basically, whoever is getting kissed, Melanie is yelling. There are too many long, yearning looks to count, and half the 125-minute run time is spent on empty staring, which honestly is better than the flat, clunky dialogue and delivery. And, I shit you not, there are multiple kissing-in-the-rain scenes.
You can forgive a lot of missteps if a movie is entertaining, but “The Host” is tedious and drags. In the end, its greatest sin is that it’s boring as hell. There’s one bland, predictable scene after another, no one has any actual personality, and, despite what should feel like the highest stakes imaginable, there’s little tension. This is a cool idea dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, infused with zero subtlety—you’re told things instead of being shown and allowed to come to conclusions on your own—and totally squandered on overly serious melodrama.
Even as completely empty as “The Host” is, the film does look nice. Niccol captures the stunning expanse of the American west, and he uses reflections, ghosts of reflections, and layered editing to give the film a strong visual sense. This doesn’t redeem the film, but at least it isn’t entirely without redemptive qualities. His tactics should accentuate the duality inherent in the story, the multiple personalities within all of us, and the themes of multiplicity that run throughout, but every point is so obvious, so pounded into you, that it rings hollow.
Andrew Niccol (writer/director)/Stephanie Meyer (novel)
CAST: Saoirse Ronan…Melanie/Wanderer
Max Irons…Jared Howe
Jake Abel…Ian O’Shea
William Hurt…Uncle Jeb