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Review: 'The Host' limps along as alien tale fails to generate heat

There's not much life in Andrew Niccol's adaptation of the Stephenie Meyer bestseller about parasitic alien invaders.

March 28, 2013|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Saoirse Ronan stars in "The Host."
Saoirse Ronan stars in "The Host." (Alan Markfield / MCT )

"Twilight's" creator Stephenie Meyer clearly has a few obsessions she can't quite shake: interspecies romance, love triangles and color-coded eyes — red-rimmed if vampires are involved, silver for the sci-fi aliens of "The Host."

All those elements appear in writer-director Andrew Niccol's adaptation of the bestselling author's bid to move beyond fogged-in Forks and vampire love. But if you were hoping for some simmering passion à la Bella-Edward-Jacob from "the souls" — the parasitic invaders taking over earthling bodies — pick up the book. It does a far better job of breathing life into this monochromatic new world than the film.

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons and Jake Abel as the romantically challenged threesome, "The Host" was always going to be tough to make work onscreen. Niccol, whose Oscar-nominated screenplay for "The Truman Show" was such an inventive take on altered states, seemed a smart choice to handle a tale that takes place mostly in the minds (sic) of the main character. But the story goes slack onscreen, so much so that the movie's two-plus hours will seem an eternity.

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The body and the whispery voice in the background belongs to Melanie (Ronan), one of the few humans who, at the film's opening, had avoided alien implantation. Wanderer (also Ronan), or Wanda as she's dubbed by Melanie's Uncle Jeb (William Hurt), is a lovely little bundle of light and burrowing tentacles that's been slipped inside and is now attached to Melanie's spine and sifting though her memories. Most of those are gauzy shots of smooching soul mate Jared (Irons) with a few of sweet younger brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) thrown in to fill out Melanie's back story.

In "The Host," the eyes are literally the window to the soul and no analogy is too corny to make. Once an alien sets up house inside a human, the eyes turn silver. The invaders purport to be all about peace, love and understanding — in their time on Earth they've eliminated crime, illness, pollution, poverty, politics and, sadly, personality. Souls can't lie, everyone is polite, anger no longer exists, which leaves the film desperate for drama.

The alien enforcer squad charged with finding and eliminating any stray humans provides some agitation. The one we're supposed to be afraid of is Seeker (Diane Kruger), who was relentlessly after Melanie before she was soul-injected. Now Seeker is determined to use Wanderer to break into Melanie's memory bank, which sounds a lot more chilling than it is.

More serious than Seeker's lack of scare is the film's story arc. How Wanda finds her "humanity" and how the remaining real people recover theirs should have been far more soulful. Instead we spend a lot of time listening to Melanie nag Wanda, while the other characters wander in and out of frame.

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First Melanie fights for control while Wanda tries to hold her ground. Soon they are squabbling like best friends. There is some funny stuff as Wanda figures out how the human world works, especially when the romantic entanglements kick in — like girls everywhere, she and Melanie fight over boys. But sometimes the laughs that ripple through the audience are not in spots the filmmakers intended.

Things improve slightly once Wanda is inside the cave-world Jeb has created for human survivors. It is fully equipped with hot water courtesy of a volcano and solar grow lights rigged out of salvaged mirrors.

The question is whether Wanda should be allowed to live. Like most humans, Jared hates aliens and is ready to kill "it" as he calls her. Meanwhile young Jamie is convinced that Melanie still exists somewhere inside.

Apparently the only way to resolve that is if Jared gives "it" a steamy kiss, cue New Age music. Meanwhile Ian (Abel), also hunky, is falling for Wanda. And to be clear, it's her "mind" Ian loves, not her "body."

Somehow, despite their talent, all three actors struggle mightily. Ronan, so consistently good earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination early on for her frightening turn as the young accuser in 2007's "Atonement," looks lovely but lost. Her ethereal qualities and her warrior-princess side, a range showcased so well in the disembodied dead girl of "The Lovely Bones" and the teenage assassin in "Hanna," certainly made her a natural to handle the competing spirits of Melanie and Wanda.

She's kept in such a Zen state, though, that the heart barely beats even when she's caught between two lovers. Even the humans seem to be tranquilized, which leaves "The Host" and us dangling in the twilight zone.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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