Let this be acknowledged, for anyone trying to make a serious science-fiction movie where the lead is a fragile but gutsy teenager who constantly argues, in voiceover, with the alien invader piloting her body around: Few young actors are better equipped for the role than Saoirse Ronan. The uncannily grave, precocious star of Atonement, The Lovely Bones, and Hanna has brought a native sincerity and depth to her work since her earliest roles. Nonetheless, even she has problems making The Host’s external-vs.-internal shouting matches fly. And she’s already paddling upstream against a difficult current of logical lapses and hinky character choices.
Ronan stars as one of the few human survivors of a quiet alien invasion. Most of humanity has been possessed by placid parasites called Souls, who, as they keep pointing out, are superhumanly cooperative, benign, and ethical, apart from their habit of stealing human bodies, which usually makes the original owners “fade away.” In the film’s opening sequence, Ronan is captured and given over to a thousand-year-old Soul, but her determination to reunite with her uncle (William Hurt), little brother (Chandler Canterbury, the kid from Knowing), and lover (Max Irons) keeps her from fading, and her warm memories and burning drive push her body’s new owner to seek out Hurt’s hidden human enclave. While most of the residents want to kill her, her family hopes some vestige of her original personality remains, even though she refuses to admit it’s true, for entirely specious, poorly explained reasons. Meanwhile, a dangerous Soul (Diane Kruger) leads a violent hunt for Ronan. And while Irons broods over Ronan’s semi-return, the Soul falls for another guy (Jake Abel), leading to one of the weirder love triangles in the young-adult-fiction realm.
The Host adapts a novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who changes genres, but not sensibilities. Once again, she’s produced a story with a few bursts of action spaced apart by a great deal of talking and silent glowering. And as with Twilight, romance in The Host is entirely chaste and unsettlingly bossy: One touching moment features Irons gently, repeatedly reassuring Ronan that she doesn’t have to have sex with him. In another, Abel asks Ronan’s personality to go away, so he can make out with her body and its alien controller. It’s all done with too much solemn gravity to be as creepy as it sounds, but that’s part of a larger problem—The Host is so hushed and bloodless that it tends to feel mechanical. Director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord Of War) has always favored a chilly, intellectual aesthetic, and it’s on full display here. (So is his flashy visual aesthetic, which leads in some questionable directions: Apparently a side effect of alien possession is an almost insurmountable craving for all-white outfits, spartan concrete architecture, and only the shiniest, most reflective chrome-plated vehicles.)
The film’s tone is mostly an issue because on paper, The Host is a story about passion: how the protagonist’s passions push her alien symbiote to extreme ends, how two boys’ love push the conjoined duo in opposite directions, how the antagonist’s fury makes everyone’s life a hell, and how the symbiote eventually succumbs to desires of her own. But Kruger is the only one wearing her emotions openly, while everyone else lives their lives at whisper-volume. Niccols always picks unusual, intriguing projects, and gives them a distinctive look, but the emotional core of his stories sometimes escapes him. The Host is a step up from the endless metaphorical lectures and gaping plot holes of Niccol’s last film, In Time, but its muffled emotions, delivered with Twilight-esque blank-eyed calm, put it in the same category of a creative idea hamstrung in execution.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Host’s Spoiler Space.