Two sets of fingerprints are smeared all over The Host, a quiet sci-fi story about a strange invasion. The film is based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, whose weaknesses as a writer have been plentifully detailed. Her dialogue is leaden, her adjectives overused, her love triangles — or squares — so predictable that my date leaned over, midway through The Host, to say of its matching blond hunks, “I’m confused about which one is Robert Pattinson and which is the werewolf guy.”
But The Host doesn’t rely entirely on Meyer’s source material. Sleek, spare, oddly distant, as streamlined as the Lotus cars favored by its alien hunters, The Host is as much an Andrew Niccol film as anything. It sits somewhere between Gattaca and In Time, neither as tense and effective as the former nor as overstuffed and absurd as the latter. This is a muted, strange little movie, but for all its too-solemn dialogue and nebulous themes, The Host never quite lost me.
A lot of credit goes to Saoirse Ronan, who has just the right wide-eyed, unreadable face to convincingly play two characters in one body. In the future, Earth has been invaded by alien parasites; once introduced into human bodies, they take over, quashing the human consciousness. The aliens make everything perfect: groceries are free, no one’s white Ann Taylor Loft duds ever get dirty and if you need to borrow a car for a quick getaway, you just ask. Humanity survives only in pockets, in hiding.
The alien Wanderer, a glowy space anemone in its natural state, is introduced into the body of Melanie, a feisty girl captured while trying to protect her little brother. Unlike most humans, Melanie sticks around, fighting for control. The Seeker (an icy Diane Kruger) wants Wanda to ransack Melanie’s memories for the location of more humans, but Wanda can’t bring herself to rat out the voice sharing her mind.
Driven by Melanie’s fear for her little brother and her love interest, Jarod (Max Irons), the Wanderer makes her way to the hideout of Melanie’s Uncle Jeb (a ponytailed, and perfectly game, William Hurt), who trusts the girl and nicknames her Wanda. Jeb’s desert hidey-hole is half ingenious, half leftover sets from Cowboys & Aliens, which is actually a fair summary of the film: It’s cobbled together from other ideas and movies, but pieces of it still spark.
What doesn’t spark is the romantic tangle: Melanie, who forbids Wanda to tell anyone she’s still in there, loves Jarod; Wanda is drawn to Ian (Jake Abel), despite the fact that his first response to her was murderous. The film is never more Meyer’s than in these too-simple, too-similar connections, but while Niccol lets composer Antonio Pinto get too gooey, he otherwise keeps the tone steady, refusing to let the film off its controlled, sci-fi leash.
The Host is vaguely interested in the idea of the Other, and of the relationship between power and freedom; there’s a plaintive “Why can’t we all just get along?” threaded through the earnest screenplay. It’ll be too sincere for a lot of people; we’ve gotten used to loud, cynical science fiction, and this is quiet, introspective, not quite thinky but slightly thoughtful — and it flies off the tracks toward the end, when Wanda makes a decision that serves little purpose but to manufacture unconvincing drama. The Host might have been stronger as a TV series, with more time to spend on character development and a gradually building plot, but Niccol’s cool direction and his solid cast make is a perfectly watchable — if far from brilliant — genre piece.
THE HOST: Directed by Andrew Niccol. Screenplay by Niccol, based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer. Cinematography, Roberto Schaefer. Editor, Thomas J. Nordberg. Music, Antonio Pinto. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, Jake Abel, William Hurt and Max Irons. Open Road Films, 2013. PG-13. 125 minutes. Three stars.