In the middle of all the hoopla about the Twilight series, author Stephenie Meyer also published a mostly unheralded standalone sci-fi novel called The Host. The book asked the question, “What if an alien took over your body, and you were still trapped in there?” It’s a complex idea, and one that both Meyer’s novel and director Andrew Niccol’s filmed version handle with a deft and at times highly emotional touch. Rest assured that it’s not just Twilight with aliens; it’s a far more nuanced tale, with a more existential tone than Meyer’s previous works, and one brought to vivid life by Niccol’s screenplay and a talented cast.
When we first meet Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), she has chosen to fling herself out of a window rather than face capture by the aliens who have taken over Earth. These alien “Souls” have brought an end to war, famine, and disease, but at the cost of humanity– they appropriate bodies and implant themselves inside, usually eradicating the mind and memories within and displaying telltale silver eyes within their human “hosts”. Melanie has survived her fall but lies comatose, her injuries repaired by alien healers, when her body is implanted with a Soul called Wanderer, a millennia-old veteran of the species who has inhabited many bodies on many diverse worlds. Wanderer is used to adapting to different states of being, but nothing has prepared her for the force of will that is Melanie, who remains self-aware– and very communicative with her unwanted invader– within the body she no longer controls. Wanderer is struck by the poignancy of Melanie’s memories and emotions, and finds herself in sympathy with her host, to the point of withholding information about the human resistance movement Melanie was moving to join with her younger brother Jamie and her lover Jared. It is Melanie’s memories of Jared and promise to return to her brother that eventually lead Wanderer to strike out on her own, seeking to reunite what is left of Melanie with her loved ones.
Pursued by the Seeker (Diane Krueger), who wants to find the last of the humans and assimilate them at any cost, Wanderer flees across the desert toward the hidden human outpost where Jared and Jamie now live. Near death from exhaustion and sunstroke, she is discovered and rescued by Melanie’s uncle Jeb (William Hurt), the leader of the resistance. However, most of her human friends and relatives aren’t pleased to see her in her occupied state– not even Jared (Max Irons). Reviled or attacked by nearly everyone in the outpost (located within a not-quite-extinct volcano), the distraught Wanderer at first only finds comfort in her uncle and her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), the only people who believe that Melanie still lives inside her and that she sought them out for love rather than the ulterior motives of the Souls. As time passes and Wanderer, now called Wanda for short, proves herself, Jared begins to warm to her once more, but at the same time Wanda herself, independent of Melanie, is falling in love with Jared’s friend Ian (Jake Abel), who has only known her– and come to care for her– as Wanda. Meanwhile, the Seeker is closing in on the humans’ whereabouts, and little Jamie has been injured and requires medical attention that only the Souls can provide. Worse, after witnessing butchered Souls forcefully extracted from their hosts by the camp’s doctor, a traumatized Wanda orders Melanie to get out of her head– and she seems to have complied. Wanda must now somehow regain Melanie’s consciousness, get help for Jamie, and deal with the Seeker on her own terms.
This is a film that could have been easily botched by a less adept director and cast, as most of the novel on which it is based is grounded in Wanda/Melanie’s internal dialogue. However, stories of altered or artificial being are Niccol’s oeuvre– his previous movies include Gattaca, S1m0ne, and In Time, and he penned The Truman Show— and he employs a voiceover technique that never confuses or feels unnatural to the viewer. That said, The Host runs on an engine named Saoirse Ronan. As the duality of Melanie/Wanda, Ronan is an incandescent powerhouse, equally at home in each mind within her single body. She can convey confusion, compassion, sorrow and horror with little more than a facial expression, and it’s always evident which character is producing it. A conversation between the two halves of herself near the end of the film reduced this reviewer to unabashed tears. While Krueger and Hurt shine in their respective supporting roles, there is no doubt whose movie this is. Abel and Irons, as the romantic interests, manage to flesh out their rather thinly drawn characters– Abel in particular is noteworthy in bringing life to Ian with no backstory or motivations to speak of. But it is Ronan, luminous despite her alien eyes and being caked in various mixtures of dirt and blood throughout, who carries the film squarely on her shoulders. Her clear, bell-like voice is our entry to this brave new world, and easily transports the audience on her dual characters’ journey to acceptance from others, from themselves, and from one another, with a combination of toughness and wrenching vulnerability that makes both women wearing the same body simultaneously real. Her performance elevates what could have been “Twilight with aliens” into a cerebral, emotional triumph. The SeriouslyFluffy Final Grade: A-