“The Host,” adapted from the 2008 novel by “Twilight” scribe Stephenie Meyer, is a film best described by what it’s not: it’s not really sci-fi, it’s not very romantic, and – most of all – it’s not very good. Its post-apocalyptic premise is undercut by an utter lack of suspense and dread, and its love triangles are both too messy and too dull. Director Andrew Niccol fails to infuse the film with any energy or conviction, creating a movie as empty as the blank, silver stares of the eponymous hosts whose bodies have been overtaken by aliens.
The titular host is a young woman named Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), one of the few “rebel” humans remaining after an alien race has invaded Earth. Sound frightening? Fear not, dear moviegoers, for these aliens are so innocuous they make E.T. look like Cujo.
“The Earth is at peace,” intones a disassociated voice at the beginning of the film, effectively stripping the post-apocalyptic premise of its inherent menace. In place of menace, a Stephenie Meyer alien invasion involves “honesty, courtesy, and kindness.” Melanie is captured by a group of these ridiculously polite aliens – they say “please” a lot and beg her not to hurt herself – and a Soul named Wanderer is implanted into her body.
The implantation scene best illustrates the fundamental tonal problem that pervades the film. Though the host/parasite relationship is an interesting trope of science fiction, the seriousness of the scene (indicated by its length, the dramatic music and the performances) robs it of even the slightest hint of classic sci-fi horror. Niccol presents the scene as if presenting some sort of important natural phenomenon, when in reality it’s just a CGI alien that looks a lot like a centipede/jellyfish mix.
Once implanted into Melanie’s neck, Wanderer searches Melanie’s mind for useful information on the rebels, while Melanie fights to protect her family and reclaim her body. And while two minds in one body may seem to hold much dramatic potential, that potential is decidedly uncinematic.
Saoirse Ronan, a very good and interesting young actress, has the thankless task of arguing with herself throughout much of the film. And the requisite scene of Wanderer talking to herself in full view on a street is both predictable and boring, since the Souls around her are too polite to even give her the side eye.
Melanie uses steamy memories of her boyfriend to gain Wanderer’s interest, sympathy, and, eventually, loyalty. However, Wanderer’s reluctance to give up useful information does not go unnoticed by her handler, a Soul with a nasty streak called Seeker (Diane Kruger). When Melanie and her loved ones are threatened, Wanderer escapes the Souls and is found by a ragtag group of survivors led by Melanie’s crazy uncle, Jeb (William Hurt).
Even Wanderer’s internal conflict and eventual escape play out with little to no tension; her innate goodness guarantees that she’ll protect Melanie and the innocent impotence of the Souls ensures that she’ll meet little resistance. Even Kruger’s Seeker, who is the villain of this story, is largely ineffectual, with her paranoia and general unpleasantness ostracizing her from the other Souls.
Wanderer, who Jeb nicknames “Wanda” and Melanie spend the rest of the film living with the humans under Jeb’s “benign dictatorship.” Most of the group, including Melanie’s boyfriend Jared, is less than thrilled to have her. After a complicated kiss scene that includes two bodies and three people, Jared begins to believe that Melanie is still alive, and stops trying to kill Wanda at every turn. However, this already problematic situation is further complicated when another survivor, Ian (Jake Abel), takes an interest in Wanda.
The already crowded love porygon gains another point, and more two-bodied, three-person kisses ensue. We’re meant to believe that Ian is interested in Wanda for her Soul, but his character is so thinly drawn that we have no choice but to take him at his word. In fact, nearly all of the human survivors are nothing more than vague constructions, making their struggles irrelevant and their losses ineffective. None of the actors leave a lasting impression, weighed down by trite dialogue and uncertain motivations.
There’s a scene early on when, having just run away from Seeker, Wanda and Melanie search for a car. Ignoring Melanie’s advice to lie and steal, Wanda simply stops a man and asks, “May I borrow your vehicle?” The man immediately agrees and asks to help, as Souls are apt to do. “The tank is full,” he helpfully tells Wanda before she drives away. This is one of the few intentionally funny scenes of the entire film – the only one that really takes advantage of the comedy inherent in an invading species with impeccable manners. If nothing else, this film could have used more moments of self-aware levity. Unfortunately, neither the director nor the actors seemed to be interested in being funny on purpose.