If 2012 was a banner year for Hollywood, so far 2013 has set out to counter that success. Most movies I've seen since January have been pretty mediocre at best, and The Host continues that trend. The new movie from Stephanie Meyer, creator of Twilight barely manages to produce sympathy with a colonized human race.
In The Host, Earth has been colonized by alien "souls" who take over the bodies of other species and run their planet smoothly and peacefully. Since humans were inhabited by the creatures, the environment has been healed, wars have ceased, and the world works smoothly without lying, violence, or even money. Nonetheless, a pocket of human resistance exists, fighting the loss of their wills and bodies. When the aliens capture Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), they find that her will is too strong to easily give over her body. The soul implanted in her, Wanderer, is tasked with searching her memories to find the resistance, but Melanie tries to mutiny from within. Eventually, the two rebel together, taking off to find Melanie's family. When they arrive at the desert cave of Mel's uncle, Jeb (William Hurt), the resistance, her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), and love Jared (Max Irons) don't know what to do with her. They can't bring themselves to kill her, so they keep her around. Wanderer, dubbed Wanda, is a gentle soul, and eventually becomes valuable to the community and a love interest for kindhearted Ian, even though Melanie and her body still want to be united with Jared. Meanwhile, the Seeker (Diane Kruger) who first caught Melanie is still deadset on finding her and the resistance, complicating the new happiness Wanda has found.
The Host has many big problems. Honestly, if it weren't for the sake of writing this review, I would have walked out after the first 45 minutes. I have not read the novel, but I imagine that the dynamic between Wanda and Melanie in her head works much better in print. On the screen, the persistent interjection of voice-overs from Melanie was obnoxious and jarring, especially as placid Wanda emoted very little. There is something to be said for how experiencing Melanie's memories teaches Wanda about humanity in a way that makes her experience joy, love, and pain like she's never felt in her 1,000 years, but it just doesn't play well on film.
The big issue for me, though, is that I wasn't convinced that I should root for humans in this film. The whole rising conflict relies on the assumption that I will unequivocally want humanity to retain control of human bodies and the planet. Yet, the souls who have taken over have fixed everything. Melanie complains that they've taken all the fun out of life when she wants to steal a car and instead Wanda flags down a man, asks to borrow his car, and he hands it over willingly. "We don't lie. We trust each other," she explains. This isn't a dystopian vision of a perfect earth. It's a community based on trust and honesty. In contrast, rooting for petulant Melanie feels arbitrary. Then there's the love angle. I'm sure I'm supposed to want Melanie and Jared reunited, but he's kind of a bad dude. He has a habit of grabbing her face and kissing her whether she wants him to or not. He's violent and hyper-aggressive. He doesn't seem to love people unconditionally. The only thing going for him is he's pretty and Melanie seems to really love him. In contrast, Ian respects Wanda's privacy and space, is tough without being brutal, and genuinely seems to want what's best for her. The conflict here seems pointless. As in Twilight the female lead is supposed to love a bad guy just because she really, really loves him. It doesn't work, especially since Wanda becomes the much more appealing inhabitant of Melanie's body. In the last half hour, these issues start to come to head in a way that was genuinely interesting and raised some thoughtful points about humanity and morality. By that point, however, I was so over the tedium of the rest of it that it didn't matter much.
I think there really could be an interesting story in The Host if it were done with a more compelling conflict and a better way of depicting Wanda being "of two minds," but as is I rate The Host 2/5 stars.
The Host was directed and written by Andrew Niccol, based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer. It runs 125 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence.