The teenage years can, don’t we all know, be an alienating experience, even when you don’t have an actual alien trapped inside your body. But such is the fate of the spirited young heroine of “The Host,” who finds that talking to boys and stuff is a whole lot harder when your soul is being sucked by one of the space invaders slowly wiping humankind from the face of the planet. This extravagantly silly but undeniably entertaining sci-fi soap opera — the latest adapted from the work of Mormon YA-lit phenom Stephenie Meyer — should prove shrewd distaff counterprogramming to “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” posting solid (if less-than-“Twilight”-sized) numbers at home and other points throughout the galaxy.
With “The Walking Dead” slaying ’em on the smallscreen, “Warm Bodies” still haunting a few multiplexes and “Oblivion” just around the bend, there seem to be few surer bets in Hollywood these days than tales of an Earth imperiled by some alien/zombie/enviro apocalypse and the hardy band of survivors trying to preserve their humanity. In this latest variation, ETs that look like fuzzy, phosphorescent amoebas enter their human “hosts” through slits in the back of the neck, bonding with them like the similar-minded occupiers from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a submissive demeanor and a telltale ring of bright blue light in the eyes signaling that the transformation is complete.
By the time we pick up the story, most of the damage has been done, but the news isn’t all bad: These unfailingly well-mannered aliens have, an opening narration informs us, brought “honesty, courtesy and kindness” to our often cruel society. For unexplained reasons, they also seem to have leeched all the color from the world, dressing from head to toe in lab-tech couture and driving about in a fleet of reflective silver Lotus Elises. But humans, it turns out, aren’t so keen on this whole soul-sharing idea. So some of them have gone on the run, like Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), a bayou girl from the great, tax-incentive state of Louisiana, with a heart-tugging kid brother (Chandler Canterbury) and hunky rebel boyfriend (Max Irons) in tow.
In the film’s early moments, Melanie is captured by a team of “Seekers,” who implant her with one of their own kind, a millennia-old shapeshifter called Wanderer, whose job is to search Melanie’s memories for evidence of other human dissidents. Only, as Wanderer soon discovers, Melanie is still very much alive in there, too, struggling for control over her mind and body.
Director Andrew Niccol (who also adapted Meyer’s novel) dramatizes this by having Melanie speak telepathically to Wanderer, who in turn responds with spoken dialogue — which, for a while, gives “The Host” the strange tenor of a 1950s women’s psychodrama crossed with a 1980s body-switching comedy: “The Snake Pit” meets “All of Me.” It all might have seemed even more ridiculous than it sounds were it not for the deeply resourceful Ronan, who has, ever since “Atonement,” projected that slightly alien quality of children with a poise and wisdom well beyond their years. Here, trapped in what seems like an unplayable role, she not only creates two separate and distinct personalities for Melanie and Wanderer, but injects the entire film with a much-needed level of plausible reality.
When Melanie proves too resistant, the Seekers’ queen bee (Diane Kruger) proposes ejecting Wanderer and taking over the job herself. At which point both alien and host — who have started to become rather fond of one another — make a break for it, heading west in search of the human underground.
Figuratively speaking, this is a road Niccol has traveled many times. Dystopian neo-futures, plasticine pseudo-realities and class-war allegories are his stock-in-trade, from 1997’s “Gattaca” to 2011’s “In Time” to his original script for “The Truman Show.” It has been a career of generally diminishing returns, though Niccol remains a proficient technician, and “The Host” is never less than a muscular exercise in style, immeasurably enhanced by Roberto Schaefer’s widescreen lensing of the New Mexico desert, where Melanie/Wanderer finally finds brother, boyfriend, uncle (William Hurt, looking like a dour Pa Kettle) and the rest of the human resistance living in a series of interconnected caves.
Here, “The Host” morphs into yet another genre hybrid, suggesting one of those old frontier Westerns in which some group of noble homesteaders steeled themselves against imminent attack from Indians or greedy cattle barons; surely this is among the least likely movies ever to include an extended crop-harvesting scene. But it’s clear that, as in the “Twilight” series, the real crisis here is a young woman’s sexual awakening — make that a young woman and a very old alien’s respective sexual awakenings. “You can touch me. I don’t want you to stop,” Melanie instructs Irons’ Jared in one heavy-petting flashback, but all subsequent efforts to make it past first base are curtailed by Melanie’s fury at seeing Wanderer (now known simply as “Wanda”) making out with her boyfriend, to say nothing of Wanda’s own blossoming affection for the equally strapping Ian (Jake Abel).
Meyer is undeniably canny at using genre to address the age-old struggles of adolescence, but at just over two hours, even “The Host’s” air of guilty pleasure eventually subsides. In the final stretch, the movie devolves into a protracted series of mini-climaxes before finally creaking across the finish line. All of which will mean little to the core audience of Twihards jonesing for a Meyer fix, now that Edward and Bella have ridden off into the celluloid sunset. Can there be room in this crazy, mixed-up world for man, woman and alien? “The Host” might have been more effective if we had to tune in next week to find out.
Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, March 27, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 125 MIN.
An Open Road release and presentation in association with IAV Intl. and Silver Reel of a Nick Wechsler/Chockstone Pictures/Fickle Fish production. Produced by Wechsler, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz. Executive producers, Jim Seibel, Bill Johnson, Marc Butan, Claudia Bluemhuber, Uwe R. Feuersenger, Ray Angelic. Co-producers, Roger Schwartz, Meghan Hibbett, Lizzy Bradford.
Directed, written by Andrew Niccol, based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Roberto Schaefer; editor, Thomas J. Nordberg; music, Antonio Pinto; production designer, Andy Nicholson; art director, Beat Frutiger; costume designer, Erin Benach; sound (Dolby Digital), Steve Aaron; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Michael Babcock; re-recording mixers, Paul Massey, David Giammarco; visual effects producers, Ellen Somers, Scott Shapiro; visual effects, Rodeo FX, Chaos, Sandbox F/X, Post Matters, Capital T, Freestyle, EDFX, Juggernaut, Ace, Rotofactory, Gradient Effects; special makeup effects, Glen Hetrick’s Optic Nerve Studios; stunt coordinator, Sam Hargrave; assistant director, Nicholas C. Mastandrea; casting, Mindy Marin.
With: Saoirse Ronan, Jake Abel, Max Irons, William Hurt, Diane Kruger, Chandler Canterbury, Boyd Holbrook.