Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer and director Andrew Niccol are a surprisingly good match. Their fan bases don’t overlap, yet both are fascinated with perfecting human beings to a degree that’s plain creepy. Watch Niccol’s Gattaca, about a future society where the elites are genetically engineered, and tell me those gorgeous, glowing people don’t have a lot in common with Meyer’s vampires.
So it’s not surprising that The Host, based on Meyer’s one adult novel, starts with the premise that “Our world has never been more perfect.” Niccol’s film adaptation has its own kind of perfection: It’s perfectly ridiculous. Its exterior may be stark and beautiful, with desert sunsets complementing the actors’ cheekbones, but its marrow is an unintentional camp fest.
Humanity became perfect, we’re informed, because the body snatchers invaded. And they won. Extraterrestrial parasites who call themselves “souls” erased our minds, gave us glowy irises and remade our species in their bland, pacifistic image.
Problem is, these souls are so bland they don’t experience romantic love — a Very Big Deal in Meyer’s world. When our alien protagonist, known as Wanderer, takes over the body of a rebellious young woman named Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), she finds the host’s emotions, including passion-soaked memories of her boyfriend (Max Irons, son of Jeremy), still alive and kicking. Driven by Melanie’s will, Wanderer sets off across the desert to reconnect with a cell of surviving humans, while a soul enforcer of sorts (Diane Kruger) pursues her with Javert-like determination.
The story’s focus is Wanderer’s conflict with her inner human, a theme that a science-fiction great such as Ursula K. LeGuin might have given real resonance. In Meyer’s hands, it’s more of a drawn-out high school love triangle (or quadrangle), as Melanie and her alien mistress battle over her body’s right to smooch one of the human hunks on offer.
In a mistake that’s fatal to the film version — or to any hope of taking it seriously — Niccol has preserved a good chunk of the dialogues between Wanderer and Melanie, whose internal voice is denoted by an echo-chamber effect. What sort of worked on the page crashes and burns on the screen, as even an actress of Ronan’s caliber can’t make these self-debates anything but ridiculous.
Let’s just say Meyer isn’t Shakespeare. The plucky human comes off as a brat, shrieking things like “Keep his hands off me!” whenever our mournful alien protagonist attempts to get some lovin’. It’s not easy being an ambivalent body snatcher.
Niccol should have kept this audible squabbling to a minimum and let Ronan display the conflicts on her face; there’s something undeniably mesmerizing about her half-human stare. But he embraces the ludicrous wholeheartedly.
In some ways, Meyer’s aliens suggest angels, selflessly preparing us for a heaven where nobody lies or steals by obliterating our will to sin. But she sidesteps the potentially thorny — and interesting — conflict between inhuman perfection and human passion by making Kruger’s villain a standard, nonangelic baddie.
By the end, we’re supposed to believe Wanderer has learned an important lesson about the irrepressible power of the human spirit, yet Homo sapiens is represented here by a bunch of pretty young actors being petulant. (William Hurt also gets in the mix as a token Wise Old Dude.) Maybe next time the aliens will know better than to invade a planet where everybody acts like they’re still in high school.
* Running time: 125 min.
* Rated: PG-13
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