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The eye halo effect works a lot better when it’s the glowy CG. The contacts they use for most shots don’t look nearly as good.

I’ve never reviewed a Twilight film so my readers have never been confronted with my thoughts on Stephanie Meyer and the various controversies, conundrums, and kerfuffles revolving around her and her work. It may be of interest to note that I’ve seen all the Twilight movies and I don’t even hate them. I watched The Vampire Diaries on the CW until recently (blame my SO for this, though, I never much liked it). The point here is that I’m not one of those guys who just baseline dismisses this stuff. I don’t seek it out, either, and I saw the Twilight films through the obligations of friendship, which sometimes put us in the path of things we’d just as soon avoid.

In the case of The Host, there were two reasons I wanted to see this movie on my own, not needing the persuasion of girlfriends platonic or otherwise to coax me. The first is that it’s Andrew Niccol (Gattaca and In Time) who is one of my favorite filmmakers. The second is Saorise Ronan who is one of the best young actresses out there and who is being rightly praised for carrying The Host almost completely on her shoulders. If the film is at all watchable, and I don’t know that it is, it’s because of her.

The Host essentially serves two masters. The first is Niccol’s penchant for glossy dystopia as a metaphor for contemporary issues. The second is Meyer’s penchant for schlocky romantic entanglements that are like if Shakespeare was reincarnated as a twelve year old Puritan who couldn’t write. Unfortunately for the movie, and for its viewers, there is far more commitment to the latter than to the former and the result is a CW pilot that is barely science fiction and mostly unearned BIG EMOTIONS!

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Poor Melanie’s body.

The Host is very heavy on exposition. The opening, delivered by William Hurt or Donald Sutherland (who really knows anymore?) tells us that aliens have taken over our planet and basically “perfected” life here. Instead of terraforming or acting like a recognizable conqueror, the civilization of “Souls” (this is what they call themselves, natch) basically hijacks ours and ditches any institution or practice that is self-destructive or harmful to the environment. Thus, the world is in an unprecedented state of peace and balance. Only a few outliers remain human, isolated from mainstream occupied civilization by choice. The Souls don’t pause to wonder about the morality of their actions and as such, humans see them completely as conquerors and murderers. The operative notion is that an ensouled human is no longer human, the human mind having died as part of the occupation. We quickly learn this is not the case.

Ronan plays both Melanie and Wanderer/Wanda, the Soul that is implanted in her. An old alien, Wanderer has been to many of the twelve other worlds the Souls have “conquered” and has kept moving on. Because the “Seekers”, a sort of Soul police force tasked with finding enclaves of humans to induct, think Melanie has valuable information, Wanderer is interrogated for her memories. The main Seeker is played by Diane Kruger and has no name (for some reason, all the other Soul characters have names like Winters or Lake). Usually, the human mind is entirely sublimated by the Soul but in Wanderer’s case, it is clear that Melanie is a fighter and can occasionally mount a resistance in what is no longer her own body.

This resistance is the core of the film. Wanderer and the other Souls don’t really understand humans at all. Unfortunately, this comes across incidentally as opposed to being an issue that the film is at all interested in exploring. I mean, we do get reassured that Souls have never encountered the kind of “feelings” humans have so that we have a basis for all the romantic nonsense later as well as Wanderer’s essential confusion about living in Melanie’s body. Anyway, I mention all this because there seems to be no good reason for Souls to bother hunting down the remaining humans who are in hiding. It also isn’t clear why these humans are a “threat to the peace”. Even later in the film, when we meet this resistance, they don’t seem that threatening. The movie backs down from having them do anything beyond the marginally disruptive, therefore we never really get a justification for the conflict between the Souls and them beyond “they are a threat”. This is the kind of stuff Niccol should have fleshed out for the adaptation and it’s a huge flaw because it prevents us from caring about the background conflict enough that the drama of its participants registers as anything else than drama for its own sake.

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I mean, all they really do is steal food and occasionally shoot small arms at the endless supply of bulletproof chrome vehicles.

The world-building in the movie is very uninspired. The Seekers are the only aliens with any kind of specific visible aesthetic. It’s basically white clothes and chrome. Someone on io9 mistook it for some sort of BoyzIIMen cover shoot and that’s exactly what it is like. This movie likely had a low budget but that should have meant more creativity in giving us some visually interesting character and costume design. But nah. White clothes and chrome.

Having said that, one of the film’s technical strong points (yes it has some of those) is the photography. The art direction is McBland to the point of distraction, but there are beautiful locations and shots that are meant to evoke Wanderer’s sense of wonder(er) about dee Earf. This sells, actually, and it is through this that Ronan largely sells the character. It can’t be understated how important this is because the movie relies on a device that just about lost me less than ten minutes in. Ronan is basically playing two characters, but one is just Melanie’s Texas-accented voice in her head. The voice has a cheesy soap opera tinny echo that is excruciating to listen to.  Somehow, Ronan makes it work. Later, the voice literally yells at her to stop kissing all the American Apparel models that populate this movie’s male cast and it is hilariously awful. Somehow, Ronan makes it work.

Also of use is William Hurt who is actually doing some kind of Herschel Green thing and it mostly plays. Kruger, unfortunately, gets a thankless and underwritten role.

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Kruger is pretty good in general, not being done any favors here.

As interesting as its underlying themes are, and they are, The Host flounders by trying to derive drama from contrived character interactions. During the second act, Wanderer is hanging out among the resistance led by Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). Some of them are open to her simply because she wears a familiar face, others are curious about the aliens themselves, and still others are extremely hostile. Some of this stuff works (the Kyle situation, family stuff with Jeb and the kid, the actual cave location) but mostly it is one badly contrived dramatic trigger after another. The first offender is Melanie’s insistence that Wanderer not tell them she’s alive in there, only to keep changing her mind as it becomes clear to her that this is was always a stupid fucking move. For the audience, it makes for uncomfortable questions about why Melanie even got Wanderer to bring her there in the first place. Silliness. Worse still is the bit where Melanie leaves Wanderer’s mind for a while and she resorts to kissing various boys to piss Melanie off enough to bring her back. I am not kidding, this is actually a dramatic beat in this movie.

Fuck. Ing. Terrible. But sort of weirdly comical at the same time. This, people, is the CW formula. The Vampire Diaries basically operates on the same stupid dramatic principles. Most science fiction movies would derive additional drama from the context. For a great example of this, see The Hunger Games. This movie forgets its about an alien invasion for almost half the running time. Its weak villain, Diane Kruger, actually disappears for a huge chunk of the second act so there’s more room for the movie to pretend to earn emotional investment in Wanderer’s relationship with all these humans. Though it is two hours and six minutes long, The Host fails to earn much of its emotional payoffs. We’re supposed to care that Melanie and Wanda become friends, but too much time is wasted on petty shriek-fests from Melanie and cool confusion from Wanda to get there. There’s not enough time spent on just dialoguing or developing the secondary characters to justify the major relationshipsEven Melanie and Jared’s thing, which seemed to be in full bloom before she was taken, only limps along once Mel/Wanda get in the caves. They suddenly had to make room for Ian, Jeb, Aunt Mag, and the little brother. They don’t even do anything with Mag’s general disapproval and dislike of Wanda, it’s just a thing til it’s not.

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Thankfully for the Meyer fans, there’s plenty of this shit.

Even though Wanderer is a far better character than Bella, because you know, she actually is a character, there’s still the ugly presence of regressive gender bullshit in this movie. The men in Mel/Wanda’s life are possessive, violent, and somewhat unable to control themselves around her. Jared smacks Wanda around the first time he sees her, only to tearfully confess his love for Melanie later on. Ian utters the soon to be infamous “You. Are. Not. Leaving. Me.” bullshit after about ten seconds of screentime have been spent on developing a relationship between he and Wanda. It’s gross and it’s the stuff that those people who do like this movie are going to like it for. I guess you just can’t win sometimes.

On top of the false drama, the unearned emotional content, and the neglect for its own plot, The Host features stunningly bad dialogue. You’d think that on top of fleshing out the underdeveloped bauble that is this movie’s genre obligations, Niccol would have bothered to punch up the script some. He did not, however, and this results in cringes.

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Lens flares, the future, and aliens. 

When the movie finally returns to its plot, another contrivance is revealed. This whole time, the resistance has been trying to liberate human host bodies from the Souls by cutting them out. This, in retrospect, somewhat justifies the Seekers and their whole anti-resistance thing, but it’s a little late to undo the floundering in general. That said, it’s an interesting development until it is used as an excuse for Wanda to generate fake drama by saying she will suicide and give the humans the knowledge they need to take Souls out safely (after claiming it was impossible, and that humans are forever dead once possessed, earlier in the movie). Ignoring for a moment that this reverses much of the sparse information we did have about the world this is supposed to take place in, it’s just total bullshit because now we’re treated to some appeal to sympathy for the hypocritical aliens. Wanderer is abhorred by the extractions and the humans are mostly super sorry about it, in keeping with the earlier statements that they need to “keep their humanity” and such. Of course, what they are doing is only trying to reverse what they think has been done to them. This, Uncle Jeb is able to point out to Wanda so at least someone fucking says it.

Still, this story wants us to feel like the Souls are special and deserving of our sympathy or something. I don’t see it, it just isn’t in the movie. It’s sort of nice that they are kind, don’t lie, etc but they still ostensibly murder entire civilizations for no apparent reason other than that they can. The movie gives them no reason to occupy Earth, not even survival. What may be there is all stuff you have to wank out yourself, trying to turn vague statements and logical supposition into “subtle hints” about the backstory, context, and development of ideas that the movie you’re watching sorely lacks. It’s a fine art being able to distinguish between the wank and the subtlety, but I think The Host is fairly easy mark.

An example: The movie suggests that humans are the first intelligent species they’ve encountered but it’s not clear. The only thing that is clear is that we were too alien to the Souls for them to realize that taking over our bodies might be wrong or something. One line of decontextualized exposition from Wanda. This all comes at the very end when we’re treated to a swatch of the movie’s exceptional score (another thing it does do well) to sell the idea that yes, the Souls are miraculous beings. Yawn.

And the weird thing is, the movie doubles back on that shit for the epilogue in which it turns out there are other pockets of human resistance, our collection have become slick Matrix-like freedom fighters, and there are even other Souls who have “switched sides”.

So wait a minute, but, I don’t even… oh fuck it anyway.

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