Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Host

When a film gets panned by every major critic, including Roger Ebert (who sadly is no longer with us), I would normally stay far away, especially if those critics agree the film can only be enjoyed by twelve-year-old girls. 

But what if that film is a sci-fi written and directed by one of our more under-appreciated filmmakers? And what if that filmmaker is known by me to make only films with ‘heart’, the ‘heart’ missing in many recent films? Indeed, what if I have repeatedly praised this filmmaker for making some of the most thought-provoking films in the past twenty years (e.g. The Truman Show, Gattaca, Lord of War, In Time), regardless of how well those films are made? And what if my daughter, whose opinion I trust, has read the book on which the film is based and it, too, has its heart in the right place? Then, if I have a couple of hours to kill and there’s nothing else worth seeing at the cinema, I might, with some trepidation, take the plunge.

Of course, it goes without saying that my expectations for Andrew Niccol’s The Host (book written by Stephenie Meyer) were extremely low (sometimes I think low expectations are one of the keys to happiness). It would have been impossible for this film to disappoint me. So it didn’t.

Not that it took long for me to agree with the critics that The Host is in many ways a dud. To explain why, I need to introduce the very simple plot.

Set in the near future, we begin with an earth on which virtually all poverty and violence have been eradicated. Impossible, you say? Not if peace-loving always-content aliens have invaded the planet and taken over the bodies of more than 99.99% of all human beings (i.e. every single body the aliens can find). A few desperate humans remain at large, though one determined ‘seeker’ (human-hunter) will not rest until every last human has been found and converted. 

One of those hunted humans is a young woman named Melanie Stryder. The Host begins with her ‘capture’. When Melanie’s body is inhabited by a ‘soul’ called Wanderer, Melanie refuses to go down quietly and becomes one of the ‘hosts’ who refuse to die and instead torment their alien masters. In the case of Wanderer, this is depicted by a constant voiceover in which we hear Melanie talking and arguing with Wanderer. To put it bluntly, this was a bad decision on Niccol’s part. Melanie’s interaction with Wanderer doesn’t work at all. I cringed almost every time it happened, and it happens throughout the film. Strike one (baseball season has begun)!

Overwhelmed by Melanie’s passion and determination, Wanderer begins to appreciate the ‘alien’ voice in her head and helps Melanie escape the ‘souls’, eventually to search for her brother, her uncle and her boyfriend. Much romance ensues, involving much internal dialogue. This romance also doesn’t work at all. Strike two!

The question is whether there is a third strike, a strike that would guarantee I would never see The Host again and would give it a mug down. Well, there a number of significant plot holes (things that are not adequately explained or just don’t make sense). And the acting is rather unimpressive, though Saoirse Ronan as Melanie/Wanderer makes a valiant effort and William Hurt did not disappoint as Uncle Jeb. And then there’s the slow pacing and overbearing score, more at home in a Youtube meditation than a film. Sounds like more than enough for a third strike (maybe even a fourth and fifth). And yet …

It IS an Andrew Niccol film and it IS thought-provoking on many levels. Leaving aside the psychological implications of the internal power struggle in Wanderer’s head (I decided to view the film on a more literal plane), there’s the big question of what it means to be human. This is handled far more ambiguously than one might expect.

For example, the alien ‘souls’ are portrayed as ‘monsters’ because they dispassionately kill billions of people in order to use their bodies for their own survival. But humans are also portrayed as ‘monsters’ because they are violent liars who constantly allow their passions to overwhelm their better natures. On the other hand, the ‘souls’ are peace-loving, truthful and content while the humans embody love and compassion. In the internal struggle between Melanie and Wanderer, is ‘Wanda’ becoming a better ‘person’ because she is becoming more human or is Melanie becoming a better person because she is becoming more alien? Are the violent humans in The Host better than the peaceful but murderous aliens because their violence is fueled by the same passion which would make planetary genocide anathema or is it the gentle and self-sacrificing alien who is the film’s real Christ-figure?

Perhaps the answers lie in humanizing the other (even if the other is an alien) and recognizing that we can all learn from each other as we strive to become more ‘fully human’ or more ‘fully alien’.

The fact that my review for this panned film is one of my longest is proof enough for me that I would be willing, under the right circumstances (i.e. with the right group) to watch The Host again. This automatically puts The Host into *** territory and my mug will have to be up. Just don’t expect much flavour from what’s inside.

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