Saturday, March 30, 2013

Two's a Crowd: THE HOST

I’m of two minds about Andrew Niccol’s The Host, which is just as well, since so is the protagonist. She’s a girl living in an unspecified future after alien body snatchers have invaded. These aliens are parasitic souls who’ve attached themselves to human hosts, making their presence known through the eerie blue glow they add to the eyes. The earth belongs to them. Few humans survive. At the movie’s start, the girl is captured by these beings and turned into one of them. Rather than conforming to the pod people ways like everyone else, she fights back the best she can. All she can do is scream from within her own thoughts, a captive in her own body, a body that is controlled by someone else entirely. That’s a creepy concept. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers template focuses on those left to grapple with neighbors who suddenly become something they’re not. Here the unusual ones, the rarities, are the humans, our entry point into the story a human who is resisting her own private alien invasion. The movie that comes out of this is very serious about its silliness, by turns likable and laughable.

The early scenes of the movie require a tricky bit of acting from Saoirse Ronan, who plays Melanie, the girl forced to share her brain with an interstellar stranger. The other possessed humans want to find the remaining pristine human holdouts and colonize them as well. A lead Seeker (Diane Kruger) urges Wanderer, the alien taking Melaine over, to access the girl’s thoughts and memories and reveal the location of hidden humans. Melanie strains to not reveal what she knows about her brother (Chandler Canterbury), her boyfriend (Max Irons) and the humans they were travelling to meet. It’s a struggle between two characters that has to play out in one actor. There’s a funny little moment early on where Ronan begins writing but then, with a sudden, quick flick of her wrist, throws the pencil across the room. Sudden jolts of humanity cause the alien, still getting used to her new body, to respond to fleeting thoughts of resistance bubbling up from her host. Niccol uses copious voice over to put us in this warring mind so that Ronan ends up giving what amounts to a vocal performance that demarcates two similarly willful characters.

It’s a compellingly oddball scenario. Soon, the alien finds sympathy for the poor girl she’s forced to share headspace with and helps the two-in-one of them flee into the desert. There, led by Wanderer’s legs and Melanie’s memories, they find a group of humans huddled in the caves, farming what they can and stealing the rest from a warehouse that the alien beings have for some reason branded simply “Store.” This particular group of human rebels, one that now includes Melaine’s brother and her boyfriend, happen to be led by Melaine’s uncle, a bearded, appropriately avuncular William Hurt. He’s a gentle, resourceful survivalist who knows his way around post-apocalyptic engineering and says things like “I always liked science fiction stories. Never thought I’d be in one.” He holds out hope that his niece is still somewhere behind the glowing blue eyes that cause the other humans to want her dead on the spot, thinking that she’ll reveal their location. The rebels are used to fleeing the possessed, and indeed we eventually see a few brief but impactful car chases and shootouts as Seekers draw closer to their hideout while searching for Wanderer.  

As this is adapted from a novel by Stephenie Meyer, the woman who brought us the sparkly paranormal love triangle of Twilight, the caves are also an incubator for strange love geometry. Love triangle doesn’t quite cut it here. The boyfriend is hesitant to embrace this new being that looks and sounds just like his love while one of the other survivors (Jake Abel) finds himself drawn to the new girl’s personality, which just happens to be in the old girl’s body. Much talk of which girl has which feelings pervade the second half of the film. There’s also much more interesting discussion about how trustworthy this newcomer is and how much of the old girl still lives insider her. As Wanderer gains more sympathy and understanding of the human’s plight, there are some ethical quandaries about who really has control over this girl. The audience has access to inner struggles between the two characters; the other people see only the change. Do they treat her as the old girl they knew or the new girl they’ve come to know? The romance of it all is admirably downplayed at times, but there’s still too much hemming and hawing over who is being kissed and by whom. Still, there’s something so determinedly weird about seeing a conventional make out scene play out with a voice over objection from the other person trapped inside. “No! Stop that!” the girl mentally yells at the alien in control of her. I found it easy to scoff, but not so easy to dismiss.

Niccol has written and directed movies like the very good Gattaca, about a futurist struggle against genetic determinism, and the very mediocre In Time, an on-the-nose income inequality allegory that swaps time for money. With The Host, he’s clearly interested in exploring the deeper questions, engaging with the material in a way that draws a messy statement about personal autonomy and resisting conformity and all manner of half-formed intriguing ideas. It fills the film with lots of ponderous discussions that always sound like they’re building to something much more profound than they really are. So much of the movie refuses to make sense, either immediately – why are all humans with alien souls inside them dressing in white? – or after the fact. Some scenes play out with a flat, unintentionally funny, affect and, as the plot drifts through its paces, I found myself understanding character motivations less and less. It grows fuzzier as it nears its conclusions. But there’s something I found difficult to ignore in the mood of it all, in the stillness and slickness of Roberto Schaefer’s lovely, sleek cinematography and the lush score by Antonio Pinto. There’s a dreamily still strangeness to it all, an echo of 70’s B-movie sci-fi in its simple effects, limited sets, and off-kilter normality. I found it compelling enough in its confident awkwardness to somehow hold its schlock and seriousness in my head at the same time. I can’t exactly say I totally liked it, but I sure didn’t dislike it.

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