What if your body responded to a guy who wasn’t your boyfriend, and one voice in your head said “No” even as another voice said “Go for it”? And while we’re at it, what if all our bodies were possessed by space aliens called “souls” who made us all drive silver Lotus Evoras, wear white leisure suits and have eyes that sparkle like radiant blue contact lenses?
Welcome to the teen romantic angst-meets-end of humanity dilemma of The Host, based on novelist Stephenie Meyer’s adult follow-up to The Twilight Saga. This time, our heroine is named Melanie Stryder (played by Saoirse Ronan, the poised Irish teen actress of Atonement and The Lovely Bones), who lives in a future world where there is no crime, pollution or fun. Super-rational alien “souls” have been surgically inserted into most of the human bodies, though there are a few members of the human resistance living on the outskirts of civilization. Occasionally, even an occupied human has annoyingly strong emotions and will that can prove difficult for the alien inside to tame.
Melanie, for example, who is resistant to her resident soul named Wanderer, breaks out of hospital confinement and heads to the desert to reunite with her human boyfriend Jared (Max Irons) and her little brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury). She finds them among a colony of humans living in a cave beneath a dormant volcano crater in New Mexico.
There they are under the supervision of Melanie’s grizzled Uncle Jeb (William Hurt), a crusty old farmer patriarch, who is much given to bouts of windy exposition. Jeb is convinced that Melanie is still in there somewhere behind the sparkly blue gaze, and to make things more confusing, gives her with a third name, Wanda. But other colonists would like to get Wanda on the operating table and cut out her alien soul, killing her in the process.
Another worry is that Melanie/Wanderer can’t decide if they prefer Jared or a new prospect, Ian (Jake Abel). Since the two guys are both fair-haired, of a similar height and build, and with the same temperamental disposition, the divvying up of boyfriends is not the most pressing issue.
The real battle here is between the two women living in Melanie’s head, who bicker in voiceover throughout the movie. They eventually bond as the alien “soul” begins to appreciate Melanie’s memories, emotions and taste in guys.
Ronan, youthfully elegant as always, tries hard, but the material defeats her – New Zealand writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show) can’t avoid making these internal debates seem ridiculous and confusing. There’s a great movie precedent for this sort of voiceover spatting – Carl Reiner’s 1984 comedy All of Me, with Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin, about a man with a woman’s soul trapped in his body.
The difference in The Host is that both voices belong to Ronan, and each time she speaks, there’s a delay trying to discern which character is talking. “I hate you. I wish I could hurt you” sounds so Melanie. But “you’re angry when I kiss a man you do love and angry when I kiss a man you don’t” has the supercilious tone of Wanderer. Then again, “This body is mine!” seems completely up for grabs.
While this might make for a diverting one-woman stage show about body-image issues, it’s an insurmountable impediment to creating a credible science-fiction action flick. Throughout, Melanie is being pursued, not by the two guys, but by another alien soul named Seeker (Diane Kruger). Seeker hunts down Melanie with a zealous alien focus, but her techniques and toys – highway gun battles, helicopters, sports cars – suggest her species has been over-exposed to long-forgotten 1970s’ television shows.
The action has some retro-kitsch entertainment value, but it’s not nearly enough to overcome the tangled centre of The Host: Whenever the committee of Melanie/Wanderer/Wanda tries to form a resolution about who she could kiss next, the movie freezes in its tracks, like an overthinking centipede trying to decide which step to take next.