Writer/director Andrew Niccol once crafted a modern classic of science fiction cinema, both in the sense that is a film that has remained untouched by the years which have passed since release and remains as engaging, moving, enjoyable and relevant now as it was upon release in 1997, and in the sense that it seemed even then to have come from another time, an era of elegant sophistication, where perfectly spoken characters in fitted suits and evening gowns were conveyed by sleek electric cars.
Unfortunately, though his later works have often returned to the playing grounds of science fiction, none have ever reached the achievement of Gattaca; the questions of digital identity asked by S1m0ne were proffered in a weak comedy that was neither farce nor satire, and 2011’s In Time, while an interesting thought experiment on the frightening possibilities of life rendered as a commodity, lacked sufficient backstory, detail and character to become believable, and it is these same accusations that undermine The Host.
The Earth has been invaded by the Souls, twinkling globs of space sperm which nestle in the brains of humans, causing them to do terrible things like make the planet a serene and peaceful place of love and trust, where the environment has been healed and everyone speaks softly and wears white, because apparently dirt has also been abolished.
There is no exploration of the Souls, their origin, the other twelve worlds of which they speak, how they travel, how a species that can only exist in a host body could have evolved, why a race so peaceful has no qualms about subjugating another intelligent species who they could easily coexist with harmoniously. Rather than science fiction, the technology and trappings are fantasy, interstellar travel by small brushed aluminium pods launched from what resembles the new age equivalent of a stone circle, advanced medicine which instantly heals fractures and abrasions dispensed via handy mystic spray dispensers, Chanel’s Eau de Santé, perhaps.
Strangely, there are pure humans who resist this tranquil utopia, survivors who are content to lead an idyllic life masquerading as Amish, harvesting wheat in their convenient underground hideout, and brave and special Melanie is among them. With her brother Jamie and boyfriend Jared they have evaded the Souls, but on a scouting expedition Melanie is confronted, leaping through a window to what she believes will be her death, but she is saved by a Healer – “Barely a bone not broken or an organ not ruptured, yet she is not dead.” “This one wants to live,” intones the Seeker who wishes to use Melanie’s memories, accessible via the Soul placed in her body, named Wanderer, to root out the remaining resistance.
Based up on the novel of the same name by Stephenie Meyer, whose series of Twilight novels were responsible for the subsequent film series of the same name, the final two releases of which are reviewed here and here, in The Host she displays an entire failure to grasp any of the defining features of what science fiction is, even given the astonishingly broad spectrum that term covers, and instead offers a teen romance where the principal dilemma is which of two boys is the better kisser, with a magical fairy story overlaid to justify the opposing viewpoints in the lead character’s interminable internal monologue.
The conceit of the narrative is that Melanie, as is stated in the dialogue, was a special girl; her personality is not overwhelmed by Wanderer, and though initially antagonistic, they slowly begin to cooperate, engineering their escape and reunion with the remaining pure humans in the stunning scenery of New Mexico, where much of the filming took place.
It is this scenery which is perhaps the only justification for seeing the film, sweeping deserts and mesas, imposing walls of stone rising up against the sky, textured and crenulated in the setting sun, for there is no story to speak of; The Host is a film in which an astonishing amount of nothing happens, and it happens very slowly. Emulating the sterile atmosphere and struggle for identity of Gattaca without any of the honesty or emotion that gave that film weight, the dialogue is obvious and functional, with only William Hurt’s world weary Uncle Jeb giving an indication of character, though it’s possible that he’s not acting and just didn’t give a damn.
As Melanie/Wanderer, or Wanda, as she becomes known – a nickname preferable to Renesmee, admittedly – the usually dependable Saoirse Ronan flounders. When given a character as rich and strong as Hanna, she can do no wrong, but without material to support her talent, all she can reasonably be expected to do is hit her marks and not step on the lines of co-stars Max Irons and Jake Abel, both suitably handsome, virile, strong and honourable, yet bland; to fully fit Meyer’s template, all that is required of them is to make Melanie’s decisions for her.
Rather than the liberation of the human race, which will allow the Earth to return to poverty, misery, exploitation and environmental collapse, the principal drive is the skewed romantic triangle, where Melanie is loyal to Jared (Irons) but her body share partner Wanda prefers rival Ian (Abel), though the audience know Jared is the right choice, for it he who appears in the soft focus flashbacks of sunlit afternoons and rain soaked kisses, the struggle to survive enacted as romantic holiday getaway; John Wyndham never wrote so cosy a catastrophe as this.