“I always liked science-fiction stories: I never dreamed I’d be living in one,” says one character in director Andrew Niccol’s “The Host.” But that’s the situation faced by everyone on Earth in the eerie future that writer Stephenie Meyer has envisioned. An alien race known as the Souls has seized control of the planet, taken over the bodies of nearly every person and created a world in which poverty, misery and violence have been wiped out.
It’s easy to spot the people who have been subjugated by the Souls since they end up with eyes that look like they’ve been electrified. Melanie Stryder, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a Louisiana lass who attempts suicide when the Souls try to capture her. It almost works, but when the Souls perform the surgery that’s supposed to subdue Melanie, it doesn’t quite work.
Although a Wanderer, a sort of luminescent extraterrestrial jellyfish, has been implanted at the base of her brain, Melanie’s feisty human soul continues to live on, which means that two entities are battling for control of one body. The Wanderer, which is supposed to assist the invaders by mining Melanie’s memories, finds it can’t always silence Melanie’s defiant inner voice. Give Meyer credit for creating a character that’s a solid metaphor for the adolescent mindset, in which there always seems to be a tug-of-war going on between what we should do and what we want to do.
Ronan, who riveted audiences with her Oscar-nominated performance as the conniving little sister in director Joe Wright’s Atonement, has matured into a mesmerizing young actress capable of communicating extraordinary amounts of information with astonishingly little effort. She does a sensational job, even when the movie calls for her to repeatedly argue with herself: Melanie’s voice has a slight Southern twang, while Wanderer sounds like she was an honors graduate from some otherworldly finishing school.
The effect could have been ridiculous, but Ronan and director Niccol aren’t afraid to lay up the weird humor of the situation. That willingness to be a little wacky makes The Host seem a bit less pretentious and angsty than the Twilight Saga films adapted from Meyer’s previous novels. There’s actually a bit of engaging drama as Melanie reunites with her uncle, played with gruff charm by William Hurt, and must convince him and his fellow survivalists that she’s still the same person they knew, even though she looks like an enemy.
Since this is a Stephenie Meyer concoction, of course there are a couple of hunky potential boyfriends for Melanie in the form of Jared, played by Max Irons, and Ian, played by Jake Abel. Neither makes much of an impression, although both of them are far less wooden than Taylor Lautner, the shirtless werewolf of the Twilight epics. Again, The Host has a little fun with the idea of the romantic triangle: Wanderer likes one guy, while Melanie prefers another, which leads to a whole lot of gratuitous make-out scenes in cozy caverns and against the magnificent backdrops of Monument Valley.
The Host may be kooky and often implausible, but it’s definitely not dull. Niccol is best known for writing Jim Carrey’s now-classic The Truman Show and directing the cult favorite Gattaca. He’s got a sharp eye as a scene-setter and the movie is both slick and sleek. While he can’t cover up all the sizable holes in Meyer’s plot – the mechanics of the invasion itself make less and less sense the more you think about them – he creates a suitably unsettling atmosphere that always keeps us slightly on edge.