Last fall saw the end of what appeared, for a little while at least, to be a seemingly endless series of “Twilight” films. The moony film series, based on a series of equally moony novels by Mormon housewife Stephenie Meyer, were torturously lengthy, poorly plotted trifles, the stuff of dime-store romance novels and late-night horror movies (although infused with questionable gender politics and bizarre mythology for all the monsters that simply chose to ignore or eschew their Judeo-Christian background or iconography, leaving them as little more than metaphorically empty mopes). They also made what leading economists describe as a “shit ton” of money. So it’s no surprise that Meyer’s sci-fi one-off “The Host” (potentially the start of a new trilogy) is now getting the big screen treatment. It’s also no surprise that it’s just as horrible, if not even worse, than anything from the “Twilight” series. It’s a dopey, dull, depressingly inert sci-fi disaster that retains all of the benchmarks of Meyer’s mediocrity (the weird politics, the staid plotting, the moony eyes) but somehow manages to be even more humiliatingly awful. No small feat, indeed.
The beginning of “The Host” is fairly bewildering but, at the very least, sets you up for what’s to follow. After some spacey voice-over narration by William Hurt about how Earth has been taken over by aliens who control human beings (giving them oddly glowing blue eyes), we’re dropped into a poorly-staged action sequence wherein actual human Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is confronted by a bunch of these blue-eyed bastards, led by a character only identified as The Seeker (Diane Kruger), even though all of the aliens who look for humans are called Seekers… Ah hell… Anyway, Melanie is captured and implanted with an alien, which looks like an angelic jellyfish. She is now awkwardly renamed Wanderer (um okay) – but wait – Melanie is still in there! Her humanity remains! Or something.
These early sequences showcase one of the elements that is terribly wrong with “The Host” — that the back-and-forth between The Wanderer and Melanie is presented as a purely auditory thing. Wanderer will say something, and then you’ll hear, in voice-over, Melanie respond (in an accent that sometimes has a Southern twang but is too inconsistent to properly identify). There are literally a million ways to present this ideal of dual personalities on film, the most obvious (and effective) being some kind of doubling where you actually see both versions of the character. Instead, Ronan as Wanderer blankly delivers every line of dialogue in a kind of bureaucratic monotone, with a follow-up line as Melanie sounding like some pissed-off teenager at the mall.
Thanks to a clumsy framing device wherein the Wanderer searches Melanie’s memory for information about the location of other humans, all of the important back story is delivered in hazy flashbacks – mostly about her relationship with a dreamy outcast named Jared (Max Irons, handsome but unmemorable) and her little brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury). Even though it was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who has never met a high concept he couldn’t limply execute (“S1m0ne,” “In Time“), it reeks of Meyer’s mushy dialogue and unsteady plotting. For example, in one flashback, Melanie is seen sitting by a campfire with the anonymously handsome Jared. “We have to go to sleep,” she protests. He looks deep into her eyes and says, “Sleep with me.” Works like a charm!
After Wanderer/Melanie escapes, she meets up with Uncle Jeb (Hurt), who whisks her away to his underground community, which looks like some kind of Middle Eastern cave dwelling mixed with an elaborate ant colony. This colony isn’t too quick to welcome her (upon seeing her again for the first time, Jared gives her a heavy slap to the face) but most come around to the fact that somewhere in that slight frame two personalities are living. The potential love triangle brews between Melanie/Wanderer and Jared, a trope that has been productively mined in genre fiction for years (maybe most successfully in a pair of Whedon-verse relationships, between Angel/Angelus and Buffy, and Wesley and Fred/Illyria), but with Wanderer/Melanie’s introduction to this community, another relationship forms that makes things both infinitely more complicated and way less interesting.
You see, one of the human survivors, Ian (Jake Abel, also handsome and unmemorable), falls in love with Wanderer (now laughably just called “Wanda”), which is weird and perverse, especially because before this she was some kind of fish (no, seriously). We don’t get any information about Wanderer before she came to this body, even though she claims to be over a thousand years old and probably did much cooler stuff than hang out in William Hurt’s underground hippie commune. At one point, he reveals to Wanderer/Melanie that they have the potential to grow crops underground. “How do you do it?” She asks. “Like the magicians do – with mirrors!” He exclaims. Oh right. Because Siegfried and Roy Miraculously Grow Wheat is the hottest show on the Las Vegas strip.
Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of nonsense with The Seeker fighting her own humanity, plus a scene where they steal supplies from a store that, in giant letters, is just marked “STORE,” and some horribly staged and photographed action set pieces, including an indecipherable car chase. Everything is bland and flavorless, with nothing to glom on to emotionally, and every plot twist is transcribed from at least twenty light-years away.
Niccol is clearly obsessed with a retro-futuristic design consisting of clean lines and shiny surfaces (the Seekers drive chromed-out Lotuses), but he can’t muster much enthusiasm elsewhere. Unlike in “In Time,” the costumes aren’t even fun to look at (they make the yarn world future of “Cloud Atlas” seem positively chic by comparison), and he seems lost in a jumble of supposedly big ideas, high school relationship entanglements (complete with some of the worst at-the-locker-after-school dialogue you’ll ever hear), and science fiction tropes that we’ve seen a thousand times before. A more adventurous filmmaker could have made something (anything) from Meyer’s admittedly thin source material. But “The Host” is worse than lazy — it’s soulless. [D-]