The Host Movie Review by Bill Kilpatrick
The Host is basically Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but for an audience of tweener girls. In her follow-up to Twilight, Stephenie Meyer is still sneaking teen lit into genre films, in this case, a sci-fi thriller. The problem is with the mix. Meyer isn’t the first to slip in the story she wanted to tell by disguising it as something else (See Stephen King or M. Night Shyamalan). But the rules have never changed: If your Trojan Horse looks like an obvious ruse, the public will yell, “Rip-off!” and that will be the end of that (See M. Night Shyamalan’s every other film).
Ironically, The Host is a two-hour Freudian slip. Meyer, whose Twilight franchise has spawned three best sellers and four major films, is clearly tired of putting Moses in the basket and sending him up or down the river. This movie is a metaphorical confession, a projection of Meyer’s own restlessness with the subterfuge of having to write Carrie in order to talk about mean girls in Maine. Either that or it’s a glaring revelation that Meyer has gotten in over her head.
In the not-too-distant future, one where people dress and drive much as they do now, Earth is taken over by the Souls, intergalactic fuzzy-wuzzies who slip through space in egg-like cannisters that look like they belong in a pneumatic tube at the drive-thru of a bank. In true Body Snatchers fashion, the Souls don’t show up guns ablazing. They’re intergalactic illegal aliens, slipping in and taking over – one body at a time. Once a Soul is implanted into a body, the mind inside it withers away. Evidence of this can be seen in the new-and-improved humanity: sedate, urbane and successful, with eyes that glow in the dark.
As The Eagles once put it, “You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.” You’d think that eyeballs that glow like headlights would be a dead giveaway. Then again, you’d have to wonder how a superior race could make it without bodies of their own, let alone zip across the universe and seize a whole planet. In fact, this story depends upon a reversal of its own rules as butt-kicking Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) gets captured by the Seeker (Diane Kruger); gets stuffed with Wanderer (who is also voiced by Ronan); but then manages to wake up from her possession and fight back.
Without giving away too many of the surprises in a film with too few to spare, the Seeker has tasked Wanderer with accessing Melanie’s memories, in an effort to get some good intel on the location of the hidden rebel base, ahem, I mean the rest of the human insurgency. This triggers Melanie’s wake-up call, her initial attempt at resistance and the Seeker’s decision to remove Wanderer and install herself into Melanie’s body, a bit of intergalactic micromanagement that has both minds in agreement that it’s time to run for the hills.
What follows is a series of low-budget chases that are only sci-fi because we’re told they are in the movie’s voice-over prologue. The futuristic Earth looks pretty much like present-day Earth, just cleaner and more Canadian. There are no space ships, not even Tom Cruise’s bubble ship from Oblivion. Instead, these aliens are driving around in what looks like metallic Z4s. Even when the aliens take to the air, they’re just flying nondescript helicopters, albeit shiny metallic ones. This is just a step removed from the silver jumpsuits from Plan 9 from Outer Space, but instead, Meyer’s evil aliens dress in white business suits.
Some see in The Host a hidden Mormon message, which would have been at least consistent with the whole Trojan Horse theme of this story. But while Meyer is a devout Mormon, the film’s story and memes ironically run the other way. If it weren’t penned by a BYU graduate, you’d think this film were some kind of eerie satire of Mormon faith and culture. While humanity’s last stand does turn out to look like Utahns hiding out in a hollowed butte (where cracked wheat and stories of survival are all the rage), the bad guys dress like a Mormon temple presidency, their modus operandi is to “convert” unsuspecting humans, and their Humanity 2.0 looks like the kind of ordered, enlightened and sedate civilization Mormons are known for. If there is a “hidden Mormon message” in this film, it’s Mormon gothic, a kind of mountain-states version of Young Goodman Brown. There’s a strange reference to polygamy, but it’s because the main character seems to have two boyfriends. In fact, this love triangle is the result of each man loving one of two personalities occupying the same female body.
The real Trojan Horse is not a “Mormon message.” It’s Meyer trying to do Body Snatchers without pushing past her comfort zone. Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1m0ne, In Time, Lord of War) goes out of his way to breathe as much life as he can into a story that feels like a Sunday school lesson – or one of those radio skits on a Bible station. The Host is so tame, its villains could have borrowed a song from The Lorax: “How Bad Can I Be?” The Souls are foreign (They’re fuzzie-wuzzies for Heaven’s sakes!) – but they’re glowing and ethereal, not markedly creepier than a human lung, if it lit up like a Christmas tree.
The essence of The Body Snatchers – even when turned into comedy, as happened in the original Men in Black – is “fear and dread.” Without fear and dread, where’s the suspense? To be sure, nobody wants to be taken over by a superior race, but if that race looks like a bunch of intergalactic Canadians – or at least the Swedes – where’s the conflict? There’s nothing primal to this story. Without the requisite darkness, everything seems a little light.
There’s another problem to this tale, one that has to do with the difference between a book and a film. As they used to say about television, “The medium is the message.” Books are internal; movies are external. With a book, you can get away with a lot of narration because inner thoughts are the bread and butter of a novel. By contrast, books don’t do action very well. Action is quick and often detailed, maybe too detailed for the average reader to follow. These dynamics are flipped when it comes to cinema. Nobody wants to hear narration. The camera wants action, not interior dialogue.
So imagine how silly it looks when so many scenes are reduced to the face of Melanie Stryder as she listens to a catfight going on inside her head. It doesn’t help that both voices are the cerebral equivalent of Wonder Bread. In a better film, you wouldn’t name your action hero “Melanie,” not if she were meant to be a cross between Sarah Conner and Lara Croft. This has got to be the first butt-kicking “Melanie” in the history of film. That better film would also include an alien with a better name than “Wanderer” – or, as she’s later nicknamed, “Wanda.” There’s nothing dark or sinister or eerie about “Wanderer,” even before she becomes “Wanda.” These are two seminary girls whining about cramped quarters. The conflict runs from tame to lame.
The potato-sack-race escape of Melanie and Wanda gives us a chance to Meet the Humans – back at the hollowed-out butte, where we get the perfunctory drama over how to receive Headlight Melanie. The group is run by Melanie’s Uncle Jeb (William Hurt) who presides, partly because he’s William Hurt (see The Village) and partly because he’s got a gun (Welcome to Utah). We meet her gentle brother, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons), and angry Kyle O’Shea (Boyd Holbrook), who thinks the tainted body of Melanie should be snuffed (Welcome to the American Riyadh). Partly because she has fallen for his brother, Ian O’Shea (Jake Abel), “Wanda” questions the ethics of implantation but also recoils at the horror upon discovering that Doc (Scott Lawrence) has been aborting implantations, with bloody results.
Body Snatchers films are about infiltration. Born of the Cold War, the genre is a cinematic version of the Red Scare, which was updated after 9/11 with whole seasons of “24” and, most recently, with “Homeland” (though the latter is more precisely the progeny of The Manchurian Candidate). Meyer ran into trouble when Twilight introduced vegan vampires who sparkle in the sun, but the love triangle between a fish face, a vampire and a werewolf somehow thrived. Here, the reduction of Body Snatchers to a Can’t-We-All-Just-Get-Along tale of two women stuck in the same body (cue Steve Martin’s All of Me) – with or without anti-Mormon fears of an antiseptic bureaucracy gunning for world domination, or a teen-lit discussion about abortion – just comes off as tame and lame.
With conflict lite, you get resolution lite. The result is a film that might just work for tweener girls, if they can stand to watch Saoirse Ronan stare (while the female voices inside her head are arguing about place holdings at a family reunion). It’ll be a sharper climb for just about everybody else. If you like “suspense” that doesn’t raise your heart rate too high, this one may be right for you. Otherwise, I’d skip it. I give this movie two stars for predictability, low-impact conflict, insipid dialogue and zero ambition.