Review: Andrew Niccol hammers another nail in his own career's coffin with witless 'The Host'
Holy cow. Someone please tell me that this is it. All the "Twilight" books have been filmed, and now we've got a movie version of the novel "The Host" by Stephenie Meyer, and that's all she wrote, right? Please, someone, tell me this is all, because I need some good news after sitting through the preposterous, tone-deaf, almost breathtakingly terrible new film by once-promising writer/director Andrew Niccol.
Someday, someone smarter and more tactful than myself will write a book examining the insidious way talented filmmakers subjugated themselves to the knuckle-headed financial juggernaut of the Stephenie Meyer machine. I may dislike the last two films in the "Twilight" series enormously, but my frustration at watching the considerable talent of Bill Condon squandered on those two films is tempered by the knowledge that he just bought himself the freedom to make anything he wants for the rest of his life. Now Andrew Niccol has been tasked with taking her one non-"Twilight" book and bringing it to life, and the result helps emphasize some of the problems with both the uber-popular "supernatural romance" sub-section of the young adult genre right now and with the career of Niccol himself.
One thing that really puts me off of the work that Meyer creates is this sense that she picks a genre to work in, but she has so little sense of what has come before that when she proudly offers up her "big ideas," it's like sitting in a room with a college philosophy major who just got stoned for the first time and suddenly had the notion, "What if the color blue to you isn't the same thing as the color blue to me?" There's a laughable sort of naiveté to the stories that Meyer writes, and more than anything, it points out how silly the genre trappings are. Meyer doesn't care at all about exploring any of the interesting ideas that might exist in a story about vampires or werewolves or body-snatching aliens. All of those things exist only to serve the real focus of her stories: a girl choosing between two boyfriends while also wrestling with her own feelings about celibacy.
Yep. Somehow this is another romantic triangle underscored with a struggle to choose abstinence in the face of lust. It's just "Twilight" with a different skin, which seems fitting somehow. "The Host" is, after all, about what happens when aliens conquer Earth by grafting their space-faring bodies, known as "souls," into human bodies. As a result, the Earth is at peace, everyone is happy and harmonious, and there is no hunger or poverty or war. There are a few holdouts, and at the start of the film, we see a girl named Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) try to fight her way out of a train station where she gets cornered. She's surrounded by a group of Seekers, who tell her they just want to help her transition into a better life. Her response is to jump out of what looks like a fifth-floor window, landing on concrete. For a reason that is never explored or explained elsewhere in the movie, Melanie isn't splashed all over the walls of the alley when she hits the ground. She's fine, and while she's in the hospital recovering, the aliens take advantage of the moment and insert a new soul into her. This new identity, which is known as The Wanderer, begins to sort through Melanie's memories, trying to find clues about other humans still resisting the change.
Most of the opening is dopey, but the film doesn't kick into non-stop unintentional hilarity until we start listening in on the conversations between the submerged Melanie persona and The Wanderer, now in charge of the body. If you ever needed proof that Saoirse Ronan is a wildly talented actor, look no further than the way she almost makes you believe this disastrously stupid dialogue all matters emotionally. She works her ass off to try to convey this struggle between two strong-willed identities inside this one body, but she is hamstrung by just how ludicrous almost every single line of dialogue in the film is.
Here's what I don't understand: Andrew Niccol had a strong start to his career. "The Truman Show" and "Gattaca" served as very strong back-to-back demonstrations of his abilities, and they're both films that take huge high concept ideas and marry them to intensely-felt human journeys. I thought he was set to become a hugely important name in film, and I was excited to see where his career would go after such a powerful first few efforts. At this point, though, I find myself watching in a sort of disappointed horror. He ended up writing a number of scripts that felt like he was remaking "The Truman Show" again and again through different gimmicks. Every film came down to someone standing up against a huge metaphorical system, and it was a case of diminishing returns. When he couldn't even get something like "River Road" made, he ended up becoming a work-for-hire guy, and when I look at "In Time" and "The Host," he looks like a filmmaker who has lost complete touch with his talents. "In Time" had one of the single dumbest premises in recent memory, a stunningly clumsy parable of the haves and the have nots, and I laughed out loud during many of the film's attempts at "big moments," and now he follows it up with a film that almost feels like a Mad magazine version of a real movie. Like M. Night Shyamalan, Niccol has followed his initial promise down a dead end of self parody, and this movie seems to feature all of his worst tendencies. It is well-composed, certainly, but the actual design of the world is terrible, and the crummy science-fiction trappings are laughable. The generic details of a perfect, blissful Earth swipe directly from the punk classic "Repo Man," but to no discernible effect. Even the costuming is distracting. Even in the midst of trying to run an underground rebellion living out of caves, the young cast is dressed in impeccable hipster wear, making it look like the first dystopian future designed by Abercrombie & Fitch.
It's hard to single out every terrible thing about the film, but on a scene-to-scene basis, it's one of the worst things I've seen in a while. Diane Kruger plays The Seeker, the main agent responsible for tracking down humans, and she's saddled with not only the most preposterous bad-guy dialogue imaginable, but absurdly inappropriate footwear that seems funnier and funnier the more doors they have her kick down and the more often they have her run. Once Melanie/The Wanderer finds her way to the last pocket of human resistance, run by her Uncle Jeb, played by William Hurt, the film introduces both Jared (Max Irons) and Ian (Jake Abel). Jared was in love with Melanie before she was taken, and Ian finds himself falling in love with this new person, who everyone starts calling "Wanda." And, yes, I may have rolled my eyes so hard that one of them fell out as the film drags ass through some painfully handled romantic intrigue. By the time Wanda tells Ian "If you held me in your hands, you would be disgusted," I couldn't hold back my laughs. It's as if an alien with no experience in the real relationships between human beings wrote a script about love, unsure what it actually is.
I'm amazed that Meyer could turn an alien invasion movie into another abstinence fable, but there's lots of talk about how the soul and the body are divided in purpose, subtext made text over and over. Niccol overdirects everything, staging each ludicrous exchange as THE! MOST! IMPORTANT! CONVERSATION! OF! ALL! TIME!, and it wore me down. By the time the film tosses in its ham-handed "Love conquers all" ending and then tacks on a painful "And here's how we get a franchise out of this!" coda, I was actually standing in the aisle, ready to run the second the first credit showed. I suspect that even the target audience is going to be left cold by this one. There were a number of laughs from the audience last night, almost none of them in places that were intentionally funny, and no one onscreen has enough chemistry for this to even work as trashy romantic escapism. This is a genre film that fails at every genre it attempts, and it fails at even the meager ideas it attempts to engage.
This is one alien invasion that should be easy to repel once "The Host" opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.