The Uncanny-Valley Awfulness of The Host

By Noah Berlatsky
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Open Road Films

Stephenie Meyer's The Host certainly isn't a great novel. Still, as I said in a review earlier this month, it does do some bizarrely entertaining things. The book starts with a basic body-invasion horror template. But rather than being terrifying amoral monsters, its invaders are selfless, pacifist caretakers, who take over human bodies and, once ensconced, create a utopia of peace and cooperation. Rather than a shoot-'em-up apocalyptic race war of humans against their (evil) selves, then, the plot is all about the rapprochement between the human Melanie and the alien Wanderer who has taken over her body—a rapprochement that quickly opens up to encompass Melanie's family. Plus there's lots o' angsty emoting, since (of course) Mel loves one man and Wanderer loves another and oh, the complexity and the torment! As with Twilight, Meyer turns trashy horror into trashy melodrama, alienating purists but providing some delightfully mashed pulp for the rest of us.

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The novel has the courage of its idiosyncratic vision. The just-released movie, on the other hand, is simply a mess. At 800 pages, Meyer's novel is too long—but that is, as it turns out, better than being too short. The movie is two hours, but it feels not so much rushed as utterly adrift. The whole point of the story is to get to know the alien strangers. Melanie and Wanderer uncover layers and layers of each others' consciousness until they go from enemies to sisters. Similarly Wanderer (or Wanda) is introduced to Mel's family and wins their trust. Similarly, Wanda and Ian (Jake Abel) grow to know and love each other. For Meyer, the slow building of trust is, admittedly, repetitive, but it at least is given enough space to take on some of the emotional weight that the plot calls for.

The movie, though, doesn't have room for the slow build that Meyer clearly loves. Instead, what time it's got it squanders on half-hearted efforts to cram Meyer's meandering prose into a standard Hollywood action thriller. As a result, we get a lot of screen time for the Seeker (Diane Kruger), an antagonistic alien charged with hunting down humans—a decidedly minor part of the book. Meanwhile, we learn almost nothing at all about Wanda (Saoirse Ronan), the supposed main character of the film. In the book, she's a legend among her own kind—a courageous adventurer who has lived on world after world and faced down death on many of them. In the film, though, she's just another colorless alien. Mel (Ronan's disembodied voice) has to provide all her spunk and all her courage, tricking her, for example, into braving a desert crossing that the book Wanda was perfectly able to face of her own will.

As with Wanda, so with the rest of the characters, all of whom lurch from one ill-conceived tableau to the next. Jake Abel as Ian seems particularly lost. His every expression—whether hesitant delight or mournful mooning—seems to have ended up on his face by accident, as if his features aren't quite tethered to his brainstem. Max Irons as Jared Howe is more smoldering, for what that's worth. Both of them, though, look like they're performing Shakespeare compared to Ronan. As Wanda, she's a demure non-entity. As the disembodied voice of Mel, she's positively ludicrous, trying desperately convey strength of character through various modulations of shrill whininess. With that in her head, it's hard to believe Wanda didn't strangle herself immediately.

I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone see this film. But once I was actually in front of the thing, I have to admit it had its pleasures.

So yes, the acting, as well as Andrew Niccol's writing and direction, are all awful; I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone see this film. But once I was actually in front of the thing, I have to admit it had its pleasures. The campy awfulness bring out some of the humor of Meyer's conception, and even some of its uncanniness. The aliens who label all their stores as "Store," who chase after rebel humans while shouting to their victims to be careful not to hurt themselves, who can't be car-jacked because they cheerfully hand over their vehicles as soon as you tell them you need them—it makes sense that, behind their sparkly contacts, they should all look like they've had their grey matter scooped out with melon ballers.

And if the supposed humans seem every bit as unmotivated and concussed as their invaders—well, that just goes to show that we're alike after all. Aliens and humans, little silver caterpillar slugs or balding monkeys—we're all adrift in the same stupid sluggish brain, all going incompetently through the motions with the same clumsy bodies. Though not exactly in the way it intends, The Host gives us a world of posed mannequins of humans trying and failing to act like humans. There it is: Hollywood, home of the pod people we love.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/03/the-uncanny-valley-awfulness-of-i-the-host-i/274496/