Saoirse Ronan, Jake Abel, Max Irons, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Diane Kruger, William Hurt
(Open Road Films)
US theatrical: 29 Mar 2013 (General release)
“Almost every human has been successfully occupied,” explains Seeker (Diane Kruger), a so-called Soul from another planet. Most humans “fade away,” when Souls like her enter into their bodies, but “a rare few fight their occupation.”
Thus the very basic terms are set in The Host, which stages the fight inside the body of one of those resistant humans, Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan). As the movie opens, Melanie is grabbed by a squad of Souls in vaguely futuristic bodysuits, who haul her off to a lab where her occupying Soul is inserted by other blank-faced humans already occupied. Melanie’s resistance persists after the procedure, however, in the sense that she has an ongoing tête-à-tête with the Soul inside her. The Soul calls herself Wanderer, owing to her continuing journeys from planet to planet with the other Souls, taking over whatever bodies they feel they need—a takeover designated by requisite all-white wardrobe and, most obviously, draws attention to the many gradations of what it means to “occupy” and “be occupied,” from the Occupy Movement to the West Bank. This trouble with the word becomes something of a focus, when Melanie suggests that maybe the occupation isn’t such a welcome event for those occupied. Hmm. Wanderer begins to wonder whether her longtime practice is such a good idea.
This is what passes for a moral dilemma in The Host. Rudimentary in every conceivable way, the film recalls the sort of perversely reductive melodrama for which Stephenie Meyer is best known, wherein naïve, stubborn, and beautiful young people struggle to sort out their identities, families, and ideals while also realizing their sexual desires. At first, the struggle shows signs of complexity: not only are Wanderer and Melanie fighting over who gets control of the body (including their differing attractions to two human boys), but also over their own feelings for one another. Melanie maintains a deeply moral concern for not killing off her occupier, while Wanderer develops a rather passionate affection for her host.
Even as they come to terms with those feelings, though, the movie is unable to provide much in the way of visual complication, which is to say, it’s not going to go near any kind same sex romance. To be fair, this is only even an idea because Melanie and Wanderer, for most of the film, are both performed by Ronan, whether in embodied form or during their verbal debates, which lapse too frequently into childish self-assertions: “This body is mine!” “No, mine!” When you do see Wanderer and other Souls in their actual physical states, they appear as CGIed jellyfishy organisms, illuminated by a pale blue glow that only partly distracts from the tentacles by which they infiltrate human or other bodies.
So you don’t get confused, the less charitable version of the Souls’ project is embodied by Seeker, who remains resolutely icy and also fearful and even mean, despite the Souls’ apparent belief that their body snatching is good for the folks snatched, leaving them emotionless and “at peace.” Seeker’s crude antagonism sets her against Wanderer and also against the band of humans with whom Melanie finds refuge. This would be the beigey rural folks who typically serve such purpose in a post-apocalyptic movie world. Escaping the slick-surfaced city where the Souls apparently don’t do much else but plan how to take over everywhere else on Earth, Melanie tracks down the remarkably well outfitted underground facility headed by her uncle Jeb (William Hurt) and including her precious little brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) as well as her onetime boyfriend Jared (Max Irons).
Jeb rejects the summary judgment offered by Maggie (Frances Fisher) and other community members, that they kill or imprison or experiment on the occupied Melanie, even renaming wanderer “Wanda.” Jeb’s admirable patience, curiosity, and wisdom lay the foundation for the part of Melanie and Wanda’s conflict that focuses on sex. When Wanda falls for another beigey boy, which means she and Melanie argue over who gets to kiss whom, and who has control of the body for which sexual (or just romantic) encounter. “Get his hands off me!” Melanie internally yells at Wanda, who acquiesces, putting off her suitor with this stunningly literal-and-metaphorical observation: “I’m of two minds about it.”
In another movie, this joke might be funny. The Host is so oddly self-serious, however, that it’s drained of any potential wit or seeming self-awareness. Its tone-deaf rendition of youthful romances, sexual awakenings, girls’ experiences or fundamental science fiction tropes is almost painful sometimes, as you hope that the line you know is coming won’t come, or the wholly predictable plot point won’t actually occur. But they do. It’s too easy to blame Meyer’s blueprint. This emerges, after all, from a cultural—and economic—context that encourages reduction and repetition, formulae that might be simply marketed, concepts that don’t tax consumers, and especially, stories that recirculate desires and hopes so they don’t ever look new or challenging.
It’s here that The Host is most disturbing and insidious. Even as it posits a faux world where occupation is bad, where humans resist and individuals are valued, its real world is the one that produced it. This is a world where formula rules and everyone is always already occupied, whether you know it or not.