One Small Step For Sci-Fi

The unlikely partnership of writer-director Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”) and author Stephenie Meyer (the “Twilight” series) has yielded “The Host,” a film intent on oscillating between lovably dopey and maddeningly boring. While the picture strikes a lovely chord with its poignant conclusion, much of what precedes it is frustrating in all the worst ways. As I’m not familiar with the source material, it’s impossible to say who’s culpable for the snoozeworthy second act and the consistently annoying inner monologue on the part of the lead character. But what’s certain is that the whole experience stings of missed opportunities. There are some nice ideas here, but good materials do not a quality product make. The film is kind of like watching a toddler assemble a high-end bookcase.

”The Host” is muted sci-fi, light on special effects and heavy on romantic subplots. Saoirse Ronan stars as Melanie, one of the few remaining earthlings whose body hasn’t been taken over by an extra-terrestrial being. These aliens are small, tentacled, glowing orbs of light – a kind of cosmic jellyfish. She’s eventually captured and injected with one of these aliens, but she doesn’t go quietly. Melanie is one of the few who doesn’t succumb to her inhabitant, remaining sentient and expressing herself throughout the film as a disembodied voice.

This premise is ripe with potential, but Niccol does nothing with it – nor its inherent metonymy – for much of the running time. Instead of the alien (named The Wanderer, or Wanda for short) being at odds with its host, it’s – gasp – a lot like Melanie! Wanda is kind, compassionate, a bit rebellious, and seems to identify as female. None of this is explained very well, but the similarities between Melanie and Wanda – especially the fact that they occupy the same body – make for a surprising lack of internal (external?) conflict.

As soon as Wanda gets chummy with her host (which is almost immediately), she becomes a target of The Seeker (Diane Kruger), a vitriolic fellow alien who’s out for blood. A long stretch of the film takes place in an underground cave, during which Wanda is shunned by Melanie’s surviving family members, including her uncle, Jeb (William Hurt), and boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons). All are privy to the fact that Wanda has inherited Melanie’s memories, so she can’t convince anyone that Melanie is alive and well inside her body.

Thankfully, the love story that develops in the latter half of the film is stunningly silly – a welcome respite from the general boredom that comes before it. Jared is still in love with Melanie, while his friend, Ian (Jake Abel), falls for Wanda. This adorably stupid love triangle (quadrangle?) anchors the third act in a way that allows Niccols to slyly build up to some weightier issues. The film crescendos with an unexpectedly dramatic scene, and Ronan nails it, largely making up for her overcooked, community theatre-esque voice acting as Melanie.

Though some of “The Host” teeters on the edge of disaster, there’s something to be said for a strong finale. And despite an unnecessary “months later” coda, I found myself open to seeing these characters again. If the film is a hit, Meyer’s already-written sequel will certainly find its way to the big screen – and I won’t dread seeing it. I’m still unconvinced by Meyer’s storytelling abilities, and Niccol’s struggles in adapting her work are all too apparent here, but good sci-fi is impossibly hard to come by. I’ll take what I can get.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: March 29, 2013
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenwriter: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sensuality and violence)