“The Earth is at peace. There is no hunger. There is no violence. The environment is healed. Our world has never been more perfect,” intones the opening narration for The Host, and, as anyone who has ever seen or read any science-fiction knows, this is usually followed by a big, fat “but.” In the case of Andrew Niccol’s adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling novel, the caveat is that humans have been taken over by a race of extraterrestrial beings called “the Souls.” They enter into our bodies and do away with our minds, replacing our brute, confused, emotional consciousness with their highly advanced, never-driving-above-the-speed-limit selves. When they take us over, our eyes change to a super-shiny blue, so you always know if somebody’s a human or a host. The result is a planet now populated by nonviolent, trusting beings with crystalline eyes, stylish suits, and awesome shoes. So, Sweden, basically.
Meyer, as we all know, wrote the Twilight books, and The Host places at its center an emotional conundrum with vague similarities to Bella Swan’s choice from those films. Our heroine is Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman whose body has been taken over by a Soul named Wanderer, later called Wanda. But strong-willed Melanie’s consciousness (depicted as an inside voice that we hear in voice-over) refuses to go away, messing with Wanda’s chi and making her do things against her will. The two eventually come to a testy truce, but things get messy when Wanda/Melanie hooks up with a scrappy band of human holdouts led by her Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). Also, there are her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons, Jeremy’s son) and Ian (Jake Abel), another hunky young dude who begins to have a thing for Wanda. So, the body that is Wanda/Melanie is now torn between Jared and Ian.
The interior dialogue between Wanda and Melanie (with voice-over lines like, “I hate you! If only I could hurt you!”, “You guys take the fun out of everything!”, and “You were not meant to see that! Get rid of it! Now!”) never stops being silly. It was probably the central creative challenge in trying to adapt this novel, and writer-director Andrew Niccol bravely commits to it. A more cautious film might have tried to keep the back-and-forth between Wanda and Melanie to a minimum, utilizing it only when necessary, but The Host goes all in, throwing in goofy asides, temper tantrums, even a moan or two when the inevitable make-out sessions happen. It’s nutty, but it has its own kind of integrity after a point — letting you laugh at it at first, but eventually laughing along with you. “Is there any way Melanie can give us some privacy?” Ian asks Wanda at one point. “You wish!” we hear Melanie yell, offscreen. It’s like All of Me meets Logan’s Run.
Despite that silliness, there are parts of The Host that did get to me. Maybe it has to do with the yearning score by Antonio Pinto, or the film’s spare, haunted look. Or maybe it has to do with all those long close-ups, which give the actors space to explore their characters, however thin they may be. It definitely has something to do with Ronan’s performance — there’s one extended close-up near the end of the film that’s one of the finest moments of acting you’ll see all year. Director Niccol once made Gattaca, one of the best-sci fi movies of all time, and also wrote The Truman Show, so he knows a thing or two about the alienness and appeal of perfect worlds; he acknowledges that there’s a certain wonder in the peaceful planet the Souls have given us. The Host, like its central character, is a surprisingly conflicted film — part potential camp classic, part melancholy meditation on the divided human self.