Andrew Niccol is the writer and director who brought us Gattaca and In Time, two science-fiction films that use hypothetical technology to explore societal divides, and navigate the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. You might be forgiven for wondering, then, what on Earth he’s doing adapting a Stephenie Meyer book for the big screen.
Yes, after five Twilight films, Meyer’s literary canon has not yet been fully mined by Hollywood, and The Host, which was published between instalments of her best-selling vampire saga, is her run at an alien invasion story. Of course, it’s also a supernatural romance story, albeit one with much more intrigue than Twilight.
The invaders, known as Souls, are parasitic organisms that have conquered eleven other planets before Earth, and survive by possessing and controlling members of the dominant species on each planet and living out their host’s natural life. At the beginning of the story, they already more or less rule the world, with only a few pockets of human resistance surviving.
Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) is one of the rebels, and when she survives an attempt to take her own life, rather than join the Souls, she winds up with Wanderer buzzing around in her head. Wanderer has lived for over a thousand years, and is perturbed to find that her host’s original consciousness isn’t fading away without a fight.
Fascinated by the sensation, and by her host’s memories of a boyfriend and a younger brother, Wanderer forms an uneasy alliance with Melanie, as the two minds pilot their shared body back to Melanie’s rebel friends. Her family and friends don’t trust her, given her outward alienness, but the question remains- can Melanie regain control of her body, and what will that mean for Wanderer?
The biggest stumbling block for Niccol’s film is whether or not you should really give a damn about the latter part of that question. As explained above, the aliens don’t exactly need to go in all guns blazing to subjugate mankind, but if Wanderer is indicative of the Souls’ nature, they don’t seem to like violence and confrontation at all.
This is a big part of the film’s own distinctive take on an Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers-style narrative, in which the invaders are essentially benevolent, but it also leaves plenty of unanswered questions about how Earth was conquered without too much of a fight. The society that has been set up by the Souls is kind of similar to Demolition Man, in which Souls generally don’t lie to each other or commit crimes, and thus seem to trust each other unconditionally.
Any and all violent traits seem to be attributed to Wanderer’s Seeker, (Diane Kruger) who serves as the film’s de facto antagonist, but that doesn’t excuse the big problem with the Souls. The elephant in the room is that no matter how violent or non-violent they may be, their M.O is to take over whole planets, and ride out their inhabitants to extinction.
However, if the film seems overly eager to give the Souls a pass when they come to acknowledge the value of human consciousness, it feels like a problem that originated on the page. Niccol brings a lot of prestige to what could have been just another supernatural teen romance, fired out in the general direction of a young female audience- he’s not asleep at the wheel here, even if he can’t overcome some of the fundamental problems.
Saiorse Ronan’s performance is indubitably the highlight of the film. Having made a splash in Atonement and Hanna, she out-classes pretty much every other actor on screen, playing a dual role in which one of the characters is not literally represented on-screen for much of the film, and yet managing to give equal presence to both.
Even if Meyer’s story is full of holes and quandaries, the initial concept gives Ronan a lot to play with, too. There’s another love triangle, as in the Twilight saga. Melanie is eager to be reunited with Jared, (Max Irons) but while Wanderer has absorbed some of her host’s feelings for that guy, she attracts the thoughtful attention of Ian (Jake Abel) all by herself. At least when this heroine is torn between two guys, she’s suffering from sci-fi schizophrenia, rather than chronic indecision.
And just like Bella Swan before them, Melanie and Wanderer usually demonstrate how pro-active they are by either getting hurt or deliberately self-harming. It seems like Meyer’s heroines would sooner painfully headbutt a problem than actually think up a solution, and seeing as how we’ve been introduced to Katniss Everdeen in the last year or so, that kind of character feels more outdated than ever before.
With this in mind, it’s to the great credit of Ronan as a performer, and Niccol as a screenwriter, that the story manages to be so engaging for so long. In the slower stretches, it’s impossible not to think about some of the more problematic issues, but you might even figure out where you think it’s going, and that conclusion might be quite agreeable.
However, the actual conclusion is just pulled out of Meyer’s novel, which was in turn pulled out of its own arse, and an insufferable epilogue of Niccol’s own invention really leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It’s tough to say that it ends strong, but it’s not like we could really say it was strong all the way through anyway.
It is, however, surprisingly violent at times – we can’t think of another 12A film that included such graphic injury detail of someone being shot in the head. But it comes as a burst of action in a film that shies away from conflict, and you start to suspect that it’s not just because the more enthralling conflict goes on in Melanie’s head, but because it doesn’t want to be so complicated as to go over the target audience’s heads.
The film may be worth watching for Saoirse Ronan’s performance, but it’s the fact that she’s so stratospherically ahead of everyone else in the film that makes the overall experience underwhelming. After In Time, Andrew Niccol still isn’t back on form, but The Host is at least an interested adaptation of a popular novel, whose assured pacing is hobbled by Stephenie Meyer’s clown-shoes storytelling.
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