Silver Screen: The Host 1/2*
For a few weeks when I was in fifth grade, our teacher showed us an educational miniseries produced by Mississippi Public Television in 1986 called Tomes and Talismans. It was a science-fiction show with a concept even stranger than the notion of education or television from Mississippi.
In Tomes and Talismans, a group of alien invaders called the Wipers took over the Earth in the year 2023, and the humans fled to a distant, Wiper-less solar system. Before they left, they created a complete library of human knowledge. Kindly librarian Mrs. Bookhart (subtle) is trapped in her bookmobile and stays behind. One-hundred years later, she must share her knowledge of library policies and procedures with a group of benevolent alien children who want to help the humans return to their home planet.
The show’s primary purpose was to teach young viewers how to use library resources-- card catalogues, atlases, almanacs-- but it was glossed over with a veneer of shoddy sci-fi trappings to keep our collective fifth-grade attentions.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Tomes and Talismans while watching The Host, Andrew Niccol’s surprisingly inept sci-fi drama based on Twilight author Stephenie Meyer’s unsurprisingly stupid novel. Like Tomes and Talismans (which is available on Youtube, by the way), The Host has the flimsiest and most perfunctory of sci-fi trappings. The Host’s visual aesthetic, while obviously sharper and richer, is no more elaborate, and the end effect is a lot of actors wearing goofy clothes running around and waving shiny silver props at one another. While The Host is a bit more refined, it’s nearly as cheap-looking despite the millions spent on it-- and at least watching Tomes and Talismans will teach you the Dewey Decimal System.
The Host opens after the invasion of Earth is complete. The aliens, who call themselves Souls, have won, although the movie makes no gesture toward how a group of fragile, defenseless glowing bug-creatures that must be surgically implanted into human brainstems would ever succeed at taking over a planet without arms or any discernible technological superiority outside of a fancy space elevator to the stars. But succeeded they have, and only a handful of human survivors remains.
In the first scene, Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) sacrifices herself to save her little brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons). She’s captured and implanted with an alien being called Wanderer. But unlike most of the brain-controlled humans, Melanie’s mind remains intact even though Wanderer controls her body. Wanderer is impressed with human dedication to one another and overcome by Melanie’s memories of love, and so agrees to help Melanie find her loved ones. They flee to the desert, where Melanie’s eccentric, science-loving cowboy uncle Jeb (William Hurt) has created an underground resistance movement. Jamie and Jared are there, too, but Melanie must find a way to convince them that she still resides somewhere inside, despite having the glowing eyes that are the only indicator of alien presence.
As in Twilight, most of the genre tropes are stripped away or muted into irrelevance. The Host is Invasion of the Body Snatchers with most of the body snatching removed, and functions mostly as an excuse for a love triangle. But whereas Team Edward and Team Jacob struck some weird chord, it’s tough to imagine anyone getting hot and bothered over the conflict here, where Jared is still in love with Melanie but another survivor, Kyle (Boyd Holbrook), falls in love with the alien creature inside Melanie’s body. Awkward!
The Host is exceptionally bad at every level, from the silliness of the premise to the consistently flubbed execution. It’s a surprise that Niccol, who showed a deft hand with sci-fi in the minor classic Gattaca and the nifty if uneven In Time, could make a movie so conceptually flawed and genre-illiterate. The Host is also just plain illiterate: At one point the science genius Jeb refers to their secret hiding place in the desert as being inside “an extinct volcano”-- not what the word extinct means-- but that’s nothing compared to the movie’s most unintentionally hilarious line, when evil alien cop the Seeker (Diane Kruger) explains, “Unlike the way the humans kill, it will be done humanely.”
The only element of The Host that isn’t a complete disaster is star Ronan, who brings far more credibility to her dual role of Wanderer and Melanie than the project deserves. She’s responsible for conveying constant inner conflict, which is often literalized by her voiceover of Melanie shouting inside Wanderer’s head. That ten percent of the time she has a thick Louisiana accent but otherwise has perfect diction is such a minor screwup in a totally botched movie that it barely even registers. The whole endeavor feels like a mercenary post-Twilight cash-in that nobody took seriously at any point, so bland and affectless you wished someone would implant a Soul into it.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.