starring: Saoirse Ronan, Jake Abel, Max Irons
screenplay: Andrew Niccol
based on novel by: Stephenie Meyer
directed by: Andrew Niccol
MPAA: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
When I came out of the screening of The Host I had no idea what to think. What had I just spent two hours watching? A serious super-stylized Sci-fi? A Lame teen-centric romance? A thinly veiled preaching that for a girl to be accepted and loved she need to be humble, gentle and passive? As time went by I decided that yes, it is all these things and it is precisely this genre hopping that made the movie so hard to place and will make it so hard for it to find fans.
The movie opens with a shot of the earth from space and a deep male voice intoning “The earth is at peace…” trying to trick us into thinking humans have done well for themselves. But we’ve all seen the trailer, we know this isn’t true. It takes less than five minutes to get to the point that the human race has been taken over by some sort of super civilized parasite that makes people’s eyes shiny.
Wait. I need to stop here and make a disclaimer. I am a girl who reads a lot of young adult books and my favorite genre is sci-fi romance, so to say I enjoyed the book version of The Host is an understatement. I’ve read it three times. So when I get snarky about the storyline it is from the point of view that it is ridiculous but I LOVE it. Just still not sure if it works for a movie… but more on that later.
The shiny-eyed parasites who refer to themselves as “souls” now run the planet and everything is super happy and peaceful. Their only problem is the renegade humans left on Earth fighting to keep their bodies to themselves. Enter Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), a tough girl who tries to escape capture by jumping out of a window to her death. Unfortunately she is too tough to die and gets healed by the souls and, of course, gets a beautiful glowing parasite (soul) of her own connected to her brain stem. Now Melanie’s body is the soul known as Wanderer and Melanie’s consciousness is trapped inside.
Wanderer is put to work almost immediately by the Seekers, a group that is trying to find all the humans left and occupy them. They need Wanderer to access Melanie’s memories to help them find other humans. I wish they had told us here, like they did in the book, that Wanderer was specially chosen for this task because of her vast experience on other planets and her inner strength. But no, she is treated like a normal girl left with a difficult task, made especially difficult by Melanie, who is supposed to be silent, screaming in her head.
The first time you hear Melanie talk from inside Wanderer it is a bit shocking and cringe-worthy. In fact, when the voice-over starts the person sitting next to me exclaimed “Oh Jesus.” And who can blame him? Voice-over doesn’t really have the best reputation and it does up the cheese level of a film significantly. There isn’t another option though when the two main characters share a body. They did as good of a job as they could with it. Whenever Melanie the human inside speaks it is a voice-over with a slight accent and when Wanderer speaks it is out loud with no accent.
Of course, one of the main reasons this works so well is the casting. Saoirse Ronan is a great actress. You may not recognize her in this film since she is usually blond, but she was the disturbing little sister in Atonement and the badass title character in Hannah. She is the same powerful presence who is great with both her face and her words in this film. Without her expressiveness and finesse the whole thing might not have worked. She does a great job portraying the gentleness of Wanderer and the rage of Melanie and seemed to switch back and forth effortlessly in those few moments that required her to. The gentle power that is so essential to the character radiates from her and really helps you to buy in to the whole thing.
Now, back to the story. So Wanderer is being interrogated by a particularly annoying and persistent Seeker (Diane Kruger) and a strange thing happens as she spends all her time going through Melanie’s memories, she also falls in love with the same people Melanie loves, her younger brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons). Soon she is breaking the rules and the real journey begins. They escape the world of the Souls (in some supremely absurd ways) and travel through the desert to find Jamie and Jared in a secret human settlement in the desert where the drama can really begin.
From this point on in the movie the action is mostly over. Now it is all conversations, mental games, and a Seeker never willing to give up. This is where the movie really reveals itself as the slow paced introspective piece that it is. Suddenly the most badass character is Uncle Jeb (William Hurt) who runs the secret settlement of humans. He is full of wisdom and keeps everything together. The movie is now clearly all about acceptance and love and questions of both. Is love physical or emotional? Are humans capable of compassion over revenge? Is Wanderer’s (now dubbed Wanda) extreme passivity and kindness all that’s needed to keep her alive in a world of humans who only see her as alien. Or does that just make her more alien? Are humans even capable of true forgiveness?
This introspective quality is what kept me interested in the whole thing and what I loved about the book. Well, that and the weird love triangle, but the movie did much better with the introspection, especially with their use of the Jeb character as a purely wise and benevolent leader. He is so charming it is easy to see why he is able to hold the community together and convince them to accept Wanda as one of them. But all the characters are great, if a little one dimensional. At least they do that dimension well and there are enough of them to keep you from noticing too much.
Sadly, the weak part of the movie is the love triangle where it should have been much more compelling. The big failing is that they never establish Jared in the beginning. Melanie’s love for Jared is so strong it makes Wanda and the reader fall in love with him too. When she first goes to him she is confused because she loves him, but he doesn’t feel that for her like he does in her memories, then she meets Ian (Jake Abel) who does care for her as Wanda and not Melanie and her love for him slowly overpowers the memory based love of Jared. None of that works if Jared is never developed. He just seems like a jerk who wants his girlfriend back and Ian becomes the obvious choice. I wish they had built more tension there, but that would have taken a lot more time and the movie was already 2 hours, so I get the choice not to. But if they had really wanted the Twi-hards to be into this movie like the marketing suggests they should have played up the team Jared/team Ian thing. Hmmm. Now that I say that I’m glad they didn’t!
Even though I felt there wasn’t enough romance there somehow was way too much kissing in this movie. There were a lot of long makeout sessions that I think were supposed to portray the love I didn’t see or feel between the characters. I just saw people kissing then slapping each other. Without all the narration available in book form it made them all seem more like horny teenagers than young people in deep emotional love. Also, probably because of all the voiceover screaming, a lot of the romance of the kissing was lost. Like when Ian and Wanda have their first kiss the theater filled with laughter because of Melanie’s voice-over protests. Not exactly the romantic moment one would hope for.
Despite it’s flaws though I really did appreciate how true to the book the story was. And in the hands of Sci-fi veteran director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time) the futuristic style was strong and beautiful (man, I was in love with all the mirrored vehicles!). I just wish there had been a little more focus on the love story and I wish Wanda had come across a little stronger and less passive. I was hoping her quiet strength could be the anti-Bella, but maybe that Wanda will just have to continue to live in my imagination. It’s probably better that way anyway.
The Host opens nationwide today, March 29th.