Director: Andrew Niccol
Year Released: 2013
Running Time: 125 minutes
Classification: PG-13 (M)
Genre: Science fiction, Romance, Drama
In Roald Dahl's “The Great Automatic Grammatizator”, an engineer creates a story-writing machine which is operated somewhat like a car. The “author” uses pedals and switches to control things like genre, style, humour, length and so on. But it's not as easy as it sounds; the controls must be used judiciously to ensure that the tale is fit for human consumption. It's a great little story and one which I hold in high regard.
Unfortunately, this isn't a review on Dahl's short stories. This is a review on The Host, which is a movie I do not hold in high regard. If its screenplay were produced on Dahl's machine, it would be a version of the machine where the switch for “melodrama” must have got stuck on the ON position and the “science fiction” lever degenerated to a state of advanced malfunction, leaving the plot to function on “passion” alone.
This one note over-dramatisation of everything is partly why the film is so cringe-worthy. While the premise – that aliens, known as
Souls, have taken over the Earth and are using humans as hosts –
sounds promising enough, potential moral and philosophical themes are
ignored in favour of teen drama, usually of a romantic nature. It's
the least interesting aspect of the story, yet it's the aspect that
gets the most screen time. The “plot”, which involves our protagonist being hunted down by the Seeker (Diane Kruger), seems more like an
afterthought to the romance.
At the very beginning of the film, Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), is one of the few “free” humans left. When she is implanted with a Soul – a white, glowing alien resembling a palm-sized bacterium with buckets of flagella – the orchestral music swells, rich with strings, ensuring that we know that this is a Beautiful and/or Dramatic Moment. The problem is that every other event in the film is also a Beautiful and/or Dramatic Moment – the scene where Melanie recalls her relationship with Jared (Max Irons), the scene where Melanie's brother (Chandler Canterbury) wonders if the real Melanie is “still in there”, the scene where Melanie sees the human refuge for the first time. So my point is, this is not one of those movies you only realise is bad at the end, or in hindsight, or part-way through. This is one of those movies that you know is bad less than five minutes in, and bad in the manner you can most certainly predict, and bad in the sense that your only reason for staying is the desperate hope it can only get better.
(...thisSo somehow, Melanie's human consciousness remains, resulting in polite arguments between human Melanie and Soul Melanie where each person waits for the other to respond before saying/thinking anything in return. Naturally, Melanie is not pleased that an alien has taken over her body, and the alien, Wanderer (later Wanda), is somehow sympathetic to Melanie's plight and decides to go find her brother and the other free humans. Surprise surprise, she finds them and is then taken prisoner. Turns out the humans are living in desert cave tunnels and have an extinct volcano with mirrors to reflect light so that they can grow wheat (and only wheat) for food. Melanie promptly finds herself in a love square, with human Melanie still in love with Jared and Wanda fighting a growing attraction to human Ian (Jake Abel). We know that Ian is a romantic lead of course since he's on the posters and the camera points at him a lot during scenes with Melanie and a bunch of humans and he's obviously staring at Melanie for Wanda's personality. Or something. On a telling note, most of the movie is set in the tunnels.
rant review's kind of long, so I'm putting the rest under a cut)
One of the consequences of a film this dramatic and overwrought is that there is no suspense. Another consequence is that there are moments of unintentional hilarity. Deaths become laughable, music induces a Pavlovian cringe response, and lingering shots of either Love Interest A or Love Interest B become groan-inducing. But worst/best of all is the dialogue, which gets pretty darned cheesy and ridiculous. At one point, Wanda kisses Jared while Melanie screams “No!” in voice-over, which results in Jared getting slapped and Melanie/Wanda running away to angst. When Wanda kisses Ian and Melanie screams “No! Wrong! He's from another planet!” or something to that effect.
The love square business would merely have been irritating if that was all there was to The Host. However, what makes the film something else entirely is its sci-fi premise. Why? Because it made no sense whatsoever. The world-building is so poor that it all falls apart if you spare it so much as a butterfly's fart of scrutiny. There are so many things that are unexplained... This review is long enough so I'll spare you the details. Just know that the whole alien invasion scenario hasn't really been thought through.
And then there's the ending.
Spoiler alert. Highlight paragraph to read.
Given the outcomes of both the Twilight saga and The Host, one can't but help form the impression that Stephenie Meyer is the type to want a happy ending for all her characters. In this case, it feels like a cop out – Wanda gets her own human body and the love square is resolved! Her new body just so happens to be that of a pretty thin young white girl (Emily Browning), because of course it does. Would Wanda and Ian's relationship have lasted if Wanda had taken on the body of an old ugly black dude? How about the body of a fat Asian kid? Sure it wouldn't have been as glamorous, but isn't this meant to be ~true love~? Furthermore, the way things end make me wonder if the humans planned on just trying to survive or whether a full-blown revolution was on the horizon. And then I wondered why the movie couldn't at least have been about this, since it clearly chose not to be a psychological thriller. A psychological thriller would have been good – it could have been about Melanie going insane, not knowing which was her true self, etc, etc, but instead we had one and a half hours of Melanie/Wanda discussing things and a half-hour of Melanie/Wanda declaring their love for one another. Sigh.
As you may have guessed, I didn't like this movie. The world made no sense, it was overly dramatic, there was no tension, and I was deeply frustrated by how the story always took the more boring path at every turn. No fewer than six people walked out of the cinema where I saw this, and it's not hard to see why. Impressionable teenage girls – who I presume are the target audience here – deserve better. You may perhaps be tempted to watch The Host if you're a fan of the eye-candy or if you want to see how bad it is. I think your money can be better spent. That said, The Host is not the worst movie to have ever been made; it's not actively repugnant and I was also somewhat entertained while watching it. So I guess that's something.
Alex's Rating: 2/5
In other news, may the incomparable Roger Ebert rest in peace; you can read his superior review of The Host here.