‘The Host’: Come again?

March 28, 2013

Andrew Niccol’s film of “The Host” starts so well that, when it suddenly slows to a crawl 20 minutes later, your impulse is to give it some slack – to let it find its feet and get back on track.

Unfortunately, it never does.

So what you end up with is a drippy, new-agey sci-fi tale that spends a lot of time talking while making very little actually happen.

The film is based on a novel by Stephenie Meyer, author of the “Twilight” books and, one assumes, aimed at the same moony-eyed teen audience. It’s a romance, of course, but one that’s of two minds – and yet winds up being virtually mindless.

It’s not hard to see Niccol’s attraction to the material. He is, after all, the writer behind such sci-fi tales as “The Truman Show,” “In Time” and “Gattaca,” the latter being one of the more underrated sci-fi tales of the 1990s. It’s also a film this one resembles at times in its vision of a demonically calm future and its eye for futuristic locations that exist in the present.

Instead of a human-created dystopia, however, this futuristic tale takes place after an alien invasion from outer space. The invaders look a little like palm-sized fiber-optic centipedes and, as in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” they take over human hosts – get it? – using their bodies as homes, rather than templates. Then they go on living in human form, ridding the planet of pollution, war, disease and other forms of pestilence.

Which all sounds pretty good. But there are a few hold-outs: a resistance movement of humans who, bless them, want no part of the hive-mind. (Apparently they’ve never heard of Fox News Channel).

One of these resisters, the portentously named Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), is the first such human we glimpse, running from Seekers. They’re the enforcers of the new order; you can tell which people are aliens in human form by the fluorescent blue ring within the iris of their eyes.

The Seekers seem like amiable sorts: “Be careful,” one says calmy as Melanie dodges them. To escape them, she jumps through a window from a great height, seemingly to her death. But the aliens possess strong medicine; they heal her body, then implant a new “soul” (the aforementioned centipede) in her neck.

The soul says its name is “Wanderer” (later shortened to Wanda, as though trying to say her name with a Louisiana accent). But much to Wanderer’s surprise, Melanie’s mind refuses to relinquish control of her body. She talks to Wanda in her head; it’s a little like Lily Tomlin conversing with Steve Martin in “All of Me,” but without the comic disconnect between brain and body.

Melanie gets Wanda to go drive them into the New Mexico desert, where they’re found by the remnants of Melanie’s family, led by her Uncle Jeb (a bemused looking William Hurt), her little brother and her former boyfriend Jared (Max Irons, son of Jeremy).

But they can only see her as an alien and a threat – except the wise Jeb. Eventually, Melanie figures out how to let them know that she’s still alive inside Wanda. Which takes some doing, in spite of the fact that she looks the same (except for those “Children of the Damned” eyes) and, basically acts the same, except for that flat alien affect.

What plot there is for the rest of the movie – which is most of it – well, frankly, there isn’t much. Melanie/Wanda wants to prove she’s still human inside and reconnects with Jared, as well as another guy. There are moments of contrived jeopardy but mostly there’s a lot of talk about not very much.

It’s pseudo-philosophical sci-fi, the kind that wants to be about ideas, rather than story. Except there really aren’t any ideas. Indeed, other than the fact that all the Seekers wear white and the alien-invaded humans all act like they’re on high doses of Prozac (or strong medicinal marijuana), there doesn’t seem to be a lot of downside to being a host.

Except, of course, for that ornery free-will business. And, given the state of our national and international discourse today, well, how’s that working out for us? So, as I said, it’s a movie of two minds (which is also a joke that Wanda/Melanie makes about herself), one acted with the earnestness of an afterschool special.

On the one hand, it wants to convince us that something very deep and serious is going on as the humans fight to survive as an uncontaminated species.

On the other hand, Niccol never makes it seem particularly awful to be controlled by an alien. If anything, they appear to have made Earth a better world by wiping the slate clean.

Which makes us Earthlings seem like ungrateful churls. And that sort of neutralizes the whole point of “The Host,” wouldn’t you say?

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