Saoirse Ronan, Jake Abel, Max Irons, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Diane Kruger, William Hurt
(Open Road Films; US theatrical: 29 Mar 2013 (General release); 2013)
It must have seemed like the most brainless of no-brainer ideas. Stephenie Meyer, who turned a tale of adolescent angst and supernatural romance into the billion dollar franchise known as Twilight, had just seen her books made into a bevy of critically lambasted, but financially successful, films. Hollywood, ever vigilant to strike the cash cow irons while they are good and enflamed, swept in and took the author’s most recent title, a specious sci-fi work known as The Host, and rushed it into production. Without any established track record except for all the leftover Edward and Bella brouhaha, Tinseltown smelled a bit fat hit.
Instead, with a mere $11 million dollars at the box office and a catastrophic critical evisceration, any hope for a future shock series filled with Melanie Stryker, her fellow post-alien invasion human survivors, and the sentient Souls who have swooped down onto Earth to turn it into a highly polished IKEA ad seems, now, like wishful thinking. Granted, the films made from Meyers’ neckbiter epic never managed a Rotten Tomatoes score over 49% (The Host currently sits at…11%) and their popularity was always driven by the material, not aesthetic word of mouth. And let’s not forget that, with $40 million budget and the potential of added international revenues, money may mandate a continuation no matter what.
However, one thing is abundantly clear - the first installment offered up by studio suits is stunted in more than one way. It’s reminiscent of the rush post-Jaws to bring Peter Benchley’s creative canon to the big screen without a proven literary track record. The first Twilight book came out in 2003. The first film wasn’t made until four years later, with the phenomenon status of the novel well confirmed. The Host arrived in 2008, hot on the heels of the whole Cullen clan commercial cache, and with The Hunger Games confirmed as the next big cinematic event, the decision to go with an adaptation seemed a bit premature. Granted, three years is about the same time as with Twilight, but all of the books in the trilogy were out - and insanely popular - when the first film hit.
The reality of the planned publishing schedule (Meyers has said she wants to turn The Host into a trilogy, but is afraid that the “dangerous” universe she created might cause her to kill off beloved characters, and she’s not quite sure if she wants to “go there”) played a factor in the film’s failure. After all, most everyone going into Twilight knew where Edward and Bella’s story would lead. Here, Melanie and her battling bo-hunks, the underground community out in the desert, and the slickly dressed extraterrestrials with an ambiguous body snatcher agenda have no real endgame. Instead, it’s all stuck in Meyers’ head. Turning such an “unfinished” idea into a franchise so quickly apparently doomed the already questionable effort. Just ask parts two and three of The Matrix.
There is also the inevitable Meyers’ backlash. Many outside her fanbase hate her work, consider her crap (just ask junk food giant and horror God, Stephen King) and want nothing more to do with her weepy world of girly sentiment and mediocre genre mash-ups. Things might be different had the author created something akin to the works of Anne Rice. While there are those who consider the Queen of the Damned an equally questionable scribe, there’s a level of accomplishment in her vampire mythology that moves beyond the 50 Shades of Shite bandwagon. Anything Meyers did after Twilight was bound to be discounted when stacked up against what had come before.
And then there was the oddball choice of giving this material over to former speculative fiction ace Andrew Niccol. Famed for creating the thought-provoking effort Gattaca (and the less spectacular S1mOne and In Time) here was a filmmaker known for his solid, smart take on such material. It must have looked like Gary Ross and Hunger Games or Bill Condon for the final two Twilight films all over again. But something strange happened on the way to the Cineplex. Niccol, who had previously proved relatively reliable when it came to this genre, turned tenuous. Instead of taking the already shaky premise and running with it, making The Host his own, he apparently fell victim to the mandates of the movie industry that hired him.
If ever a film was manufactured by committee, it is The Host. Following the Jennifer Lawrence example (which was clearly in response to the inertia shown by Kristen Stewart as Bella), the producers hired acting heavyweights like Saoirse Ronan (an Oscar nominee), William Hurt (and Oscar winner) and Diane Kruger (of Tarantino’s brilliant Inglourious Basterds) to play important roles, including the lead. Then they peppered the rest of the cast with relative unknowns (Jeremy Irons’ son Max, Jake Abel) and sullen supermodel types (the aliens look like electric blue eyed castoffs from a Milan runway most of the time). The script cut back on the science and the specific reasons for the invasion (apparently, these space creatures like to take over a planet and…act polite?!?!) as well as the dramatic tension (the humans are rebelling, but we are never quite sure why they’re so angry, aside from the whole ‘losing our humanity’ angle).
In their place are scene after scene of rain-swept embraces, stolen kisses, an otherwise accomplished British actress talking to herself, and a mandatory upbeat ending. In fact, The Host violates one of the primary mandates of the science fiction world - in order to make your speculation feasible, you have to create an universe with specific rules and then NEVER BREAK THEM. Instead - and one assume this is more from Ms. Meyer’s work than Mr. Niccol’s - Melanie and her motives constantly shift. It’s like watching a novice 13 year old fan fiction scribbler make stuff up on the fly. One moment, ‘Wanderer’ (the alien inside Melanie) is towing the cosmic party line. The next it is making cow eyes at one of the humans. Krueger’s character, known as ‘Seeker,’ is apparently a cutthroat villain. Two hours later, she’s on the Earthling’s side. Huh?
When you combine the slipshod narrative, the emphasis on saccharine sentimentality, the lack of any real future vision (the aliens’ preferred mode of transportation? Cars, motorcycles, and helicopters decked out in shiny chrome) and the unsure nature of the series itself, The Host is/was doomed. It’s one thing to preach to the converted (the book did spend 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list), it’s another to reach beyond to tap into the mainstream. Twilight managed the feat because of its already established existence, as well as the on-again, off-again nature of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s off screen relationship. The backers of The Host clearly hoped for more of the same. What they got, instead, was one of the worst missteps in modern moviemaking.