Stephenie Meyer released her sci-fi novel The Host in 2008, right as soccer moms were waiting in line for the latest Twilight book and Kristen Stewart was biting her lip for the first time on the big screen. Though Twihards eagerly devoured this new work from their favorite author, the rest of us likely knew little about her literary detour until the release of the movie adaptation, written and directed by Andrew Niccol.
Unfortunately, The Host still possesses all the earmarks of a Meyer novel—a heroine you can’t quite root for, an even weirder love triangle—without the self-referential snark of the movies. It’s so painfully earnest, yet will never rank on the list of definitive sci-fi.
Niccol’s penchant for worldbuilding is squandered here: Most of what you see in the trailer takes place in the first five minutes, in a hurried set-up that doesn’t give us time to care for either the enslaved humans or the peace-bearing Souls. Yep, that’s all you need to know: Aliens that look like glowing centipedes somehow took over all of Earth by hitching a ride in humans’ central nervous systems. A few years later, only pockets of human resistance still exist, but the Seekers—Souls who get to wear all-white and drive snazzy sports cars—are working to implant their glittering brothers and sisters into the remaining bodies. (Seriously, what is it with Meyer and sparkly supernatural things?)
Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan, once again proving her radiance in a subpar movie) is some Everywoman rebel, who’s managed to stay away from the Seekers for years but gets herself captured in the first five minutes. Her implantation is quick and painless, and suddenly she’s got a new houseguest: Wanderer, a thousand-year-old Soul who’s not too old to have a conscience about riffling through Mel’s memories to find the rest of the human rebels. But even as Wanderer adopts Mel’s love for her kid brother Jamie and her lover Jared (Max Irons), and even gets the nickname “Wanda” from Mel’s family, she has to deal with a Seeker (Diane Kruger) who’s royally pissed that Wanda’s not doing her job.
But even the cat-and-mouse chase between the Seeker and Wanda takes a backseat to Mel and Wanda’s complicated love quadrangle with Jared and fellow rebel Ian (Jake Abel). You get the sense that this sci-fi backdrop is merely the attempt to spice up yet another YA romantic drama. The movie’s tagline isn’t “Choose To Fight” or “Choose To Adapt,” but “Choose To Love.” Which sounds awfully similar to the marketing campaign for Warm Bodies, another genre romance that didn’t actually say much.
They even both deliver a dramatic punch through the protagonists’ inner monologues! However, Mel could learn something from R’s snarkiness. Even though she immediately starts screaming in protest every time Wanda moves her body, Mel is a pretty ineffectual presence. We’re supposed to be impressed that she’s one of the few humans to not instantly fade away upon implantation, but her powers are still pretty limited. If they had made her more irreverent or manipulative, we could’ve had a twisted little buddy comedy with these two female characters. But instead we just get weird bickering.
One small consolation is the fantastic cinematography: Most of the movie was shot in New Mexico, with the humans occupying a series of twisting underground caverns. A metaphor for the nooks and crannies of the human mind? We’ll never know.
Just like Twilight, the romantic leads Mel and Jared have an incredibly problematic relationship. Sure, they improve over Edward and Bella in that they’re actually having sex—though all we glimpse is an almost-butt shot from Irons—but their dynamic is built on the fact that he constantly kisses her when she doesn’t want to be kissed.
Jared lays a wet one on Melanie the first time he meets her because he’s so psyched to see another human for the first time in two years (?)—then when Wanda is controlling her body, she’s going around making out with whoever she pleases while Melanie is screaming, “No, stop!” inside her head. Seriously, here’s how they bring back Melanie after a traumatic event makes her disappear: First Wanda uses Mel’s body to kiss Ian—no reaction—then they bring in Jared like some stud horse to get her hot and bothered enough for Mel to come back to the surface and slap him.
You may be surprised to hear that despite all this, there’s still very little sexual tension, and no real development of the (admittedly fascinating) romance between Wanda and Ian. Does he love her because of how she looks? Would he be repulsed by her true form? Could she enter another body and it would be the same? All fascinating questions that aren’t really answered.
But consider that we never bought Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried’s inter-class romance in In Time, and even Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman sweetly bonding over being Invalids in Gattaca lacked the necessary heat. Love stories just may not be Niccol’s forte. And that’s difficult when your entire dramatic arc is based on a bizarre love triangle.
There’s a surprising lack of consequences here, even when the Seeker starts to go off the grid for a pretty obvious reason. You would think that a story about the human race’s enslavement would better commit to the ramifications of its characters’ radical decisions, but none of that seems to actually matter. Basically, this is classic Stephenie Meyer. And here I’d so been hoping that that wouldn’t be the case.
Photos: Alan Markfield, Open Road Films
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and pop culture blogger. Her writing has appeared on BlackBook, Ology, Bookish, and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.