What happened to Andrew Niccol? The writer and director who so famously made a debut with the inventive and thought provoking sci-fi drama Gattaca back in 1997 and who penned The Truman Show has been on a not so steady decline ever since, reaching his ultimate career nadir with the almost laughable Stephenie Meyer adaptation, The Host. It’s entertaining, but in all the wrong ways, and it’s even more ludicrous and slapdash than any of the films that came out of Meyer’s Twilight series. It’s the kind of film of such staggering, unintentional camp that it begs out for Rocky Horror styled catcalling and drinking games to arise from it.
It’s sometimes in the future and a band of tiny, glowing, spider-like aliens have taken over Earth and made it a better place. It’s the kind of world where no one ever lies, everyone trusts each other, eyes turn sparkling shades of blue, and generally nothing bad happens. Naturally, there are pockets of human resistance throughout that would prefer to keep their brains and freedom of will intact. One such young woman named Melanie Strider (Saoirse Ronan) gets captured one night while trying to protect her little brother and is implanted with a veteran space traveller known simply as Wanderer. Melanie, refusing to go quietly into her own subconscious, tries to fight off Wanderer from within and keep her from giving up the whereabouts of her brother and former boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons). She escapes to the desert and meets up with a band of naturally suspicious survivors living in a cave (led by William Hurt and including her boyfriend) where Wanderer learns that humans can be pretty alright and pretty cute sometimes.
The plot kicks in almost immediately in the same way that Battlefield Earth did, with no real explanation as to how this new world order came to be or how they maintain power. The film is so sparsely populated with interchangeable and faceless characters (and filmed almost exclusively in either open spaces, caves, or things that look suspiciously like redecorated hotel rooms) that it commits a cardinal sin of bad science fiction. Not once are we ever convinced there’s even a world happening outside of these characters. It would be fine if these were interesting characters, but we never know how things got to this point. Was there ever a negotiation or was this a full-on hostile takeover? What was the fight like? If these aliens really are making things better, why do humans truly feel threatened by them outside of the whole, free-thought thing? Why is this one alien somewhat sympathetic and willing to listen to reason when others clearly don’t? Without any explanation it’s hard to get drawn into the story.
Not helping matters is Niccol’s ultimate desire to mount another Meyer-based franchise, but unlike the Twilight films – which at their best balanced camp and genuine storytelling quite adroitly – he simply piles on a gaggle of teen romance clichés and dialogue that ensure nearly every line is an unintentional howler. He brings the same amount of flash and style he brought to 2011’s In Time by having all of the villains look sharply dressed in all white suits while driving around in Sliver Lotuses. Even the people living in the caves are impeccably dressed and shockingly clean. Maybe that’s because there’s absolutely nothing around any of them in this world. It’s so self-contained that even the mythology is hermetic.
The acting, with the exception of Hurt who grants the film what little sense of dignity and gravitas it has, is either hammy or kept to a bare minimum. It’s hard not to really feel sorry for the usually talented Ronan, though. This is the rare kind of bad performance that comes only from someone truly gifted being given an awful leading role. She’s forced to do petulant and whiny teenage narration that makes the viewer wish the alien would just take over and kill her. As the alien, she’s forced to be a blank slate and given no way to emote or sell the film’s themes of free will vs. repression of truth. The final nail in the coffin comes when the film goes “the full Twilight” and has the alien start to get the hots for another man in one of the most botched and mishandled love triangles in quite some time. There’s nothing she can do about it, and it’s not really her fault that nothing comes of it. She’s simply taking her marching orders from Niccol and Meyer, both of whom seem to think they are really onto something quite profound here.
It’s hard not to think about the film’s second act polyamourous and wholly virginal love triangle without being reminded of how Meyer is a proud Mormon and how her faith colour her work, but it also makes the parallel to Battlefield Earth’s link to Scientology even more apparent. Since there’s precious little worth thinking about or even remotely answered in The Host, I seriously began wondering if Niccol’s film is worse than the historically maligned John Travolta in dreadlocks vehicle. It’s a close call, but Niccol has really outdone himself here with a self-serious tone that ends up being more groan inducing with every passing moment.