The Host (Grade: B)
Writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time) hasn’t made consistently impressive films, but he has been consistent in his commitment to bring philosophical ideas to the mainstream. With The Host—an adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s first non-Twilight novel—Niccol would seem to be slumming it like never before, but this film is unmistakably the product of his distinctive artistic sensibility. In a style both glossy and spare (John Carpenter by way of Michael Mann), Niccol ingeniously dramatizes a battle between conformity and rebellion—within a single human body (more on that in a moment). This duality informs the very shape of the film, which strategically hides Niccol’s vaguely radical vision beneath a conventional, crowd-pleasing surface.
An alien species known as Souls has taken over the Earth, inhabiting the bodies of human beings. However, groups of rebels remain, determined to stay free of the Souls’ controlling influence. When particularly strong-willed rebel Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) is caught and inhabited by a Soul, the result is unexpected. While these creatures normally overpower the consciousness in the bodies they invade, Melanie’s will is too strong to repress, creating a battle of two identities in a single body. As Wanderer (the Soul inside Melanie’s body) attempts to extract information about her host’s family, Melanie resists, determined to radicalize Wanderer. Eventually, this results in a conflicted escape and road trip—including an especially memorable single-vehicle car crash that perfectly expresses the film’s central idea—back to the Stryder family’s secret compound. However, more Souls are in close pursuit, hoping to crush the human rebellion.
While Niccol’s determination to make this film his own is commendable, he is careful not to disregard the desires of Meyer’s fan base. In spite of its more cerebral concepts, The Host has no shortage of conventional appeal, including generous helpings of action, suspense, and romance. Unfortunately, the film’s approach to this more conventional material is also the source of its shortcomings. As hard as Niccol tries to mirror Melanie’s duality in his own conflicted approach, there’s no mistaking which elements of The Host interest him most. Still, Niccol does everything in his power to give this YA adaptation credibility, going to so far as to cast the great William Hurt in a crucial supporting role. The result is an intentionally schizophrenic work that offers a refreshing—if inconsistent—alternative to the usual teen frivolity.