Thursday, March 28, 2013

There is very little life in time-snatching "The Host"



The Host (2013) 
125 min., rated PG-13.

With the success of her "Twilight Saga" series becoming a high-grossing movie franchise, author Stephenie Meyer gets lucky again with her 2008 body-snatching romance novel. "The Host" has a provocative, attention-grabbing premise that fits snugly into writer-director Andrew Niccol's body of work about futuristic dystopias—1997's "Gattaca," 2002's "S1m0ne," and 2011's "In Time." It's the filmmaker's first non-original work, adapting Meyer's YA novel into what should still be a sturdy sci-fi piece, but that initial interest doesn't translate all the way through on screen. Take away the interesting book-flap of a concept and "The Host" is none other than a dull, underdone permutation on the "Twilight" formula, grafting on another dewy-eyed love triangle (or would that be square?) and more cool-looking eye contacts.

After a global alien invasion, most of mankind is practically improved with the new parasitic race called the "Souls." There is no war, violence, or famine; everyone is honest and courteous. A Soul is placed into a human body whose memories are then retraced to locate more human survivors to serve as hosts. Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) is on the run, leaving her kid brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) to hide, when she's found by a group of Seekers. They touch her up with a special spray and inject Melanie's body with an icy-eyed Soul named Wanderer, but Melanie's voice and soul are still intact. Are we all on the same page with this gobbledygook?

When Melanie is restored inside of Wanderer, she convinces her body to escape the Seeker (Diane Kruger) and her equally cool-eyed squad and go to the desert underground colony run by Melanie's Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). The family of resistance-forming rebels includes Jamie and Jared (Max Irons), Melanie's boyfriend, as well as brothers Ian (Jake Abel) and Kyle (Boyd Holbrook); none of them welcomes "Melanie" with the warmest of arms right away, referring to her as "it." But, of course, Ian starts falling for "Wanda" (a nickname for this "Wanderer"), while Jared wants to rekindle his love with Melanie. Can love conquer all? Is water wet? Is the sky blue? Kissing abounds.

Right out of the gate, "The Host" follows the quick, kinetic action of Melanie on the run, defending herself from a group of Seekers and lunging herself out of a high-story window. That's mostly where the action begins and ends, unless you count a suicidal car crash and The Seeker firing a gun. Not that the film needed to be whiplash-fast and mindless, but things really slow to a crawl, being confined to the humans' cavernous hideout where the flat characters and soporific plotting stand in place for two hours. And how are we supposed to take stock in a shallow relationship that amounts to heavy petting and laughing in the rain?

The role of Melanie/Wanda fits the ethereal Saoirse Ronan like a glove. She's compelling for a heroine with two minds in one body, but it's hard to make an inner voice arguing with the body's voice interesting and cinematic, especially when the arguments are over kissing a boy. Didn't Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin tackle a similar concept to humorous effect twenty-nine years ago in "All of Me"? Here, the humor wrung from said scenario is clunky at worst and, well, intentional at best. It doesn't help that there are a few unintentionally funny moments as well, two of which have Melanie facing two smacks across the face from separate characters and then delivering her own slap to one of the men because Melanie doesn't want Jared kissing Wanda. "Kiss me like you want to get slapped" is a real line of dialogue.

Of the two heartthrobs Melanie gets to choose from, neither Max Irons nor Jake Abel can project any distinguishing traits into Jared and Ian. If these two twenty-something actors match the details of hair and eye colors as two devastatingly good-looking blanks in Meyer's text, then they serve those requirements quite well. As The Seeker, Diane Kruger is wasted but keeps a straight face, letting her blue contacts, white pant suit, and chic silver Lotus do most of the work before showing a different note in a third-act switch. William Hurt provides some intended laughs, while Frances Fisher is relegated to the background as his wife, Aunt Maggie.

On a plainly seeable and audible level, this is a technically well-made picture with slick production design (the wheat fields inside the rebels' cave system are pretty and a store called "Store" is an amusing but all-too-brief touch) and Antonio Pinto's elegiac music score. If "The Host" is ever interesting in the slightest, it's all Ronan's doing. Otherwise, this is all very silly, long-winded and shrug-worthy pap, lacking any sort of energy or excitement. It's so lifeless that one keeps wishing Donald Sutherland's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" character would just show up and let out a piercing pod scream.

Grade: C - 

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