Filminism is a bi-weekly column dedicated to representations of women in cinema. It runs every other Friday.
[This article contains spoilers for "The Host"]
"The Host" is based on Stephenie Meyer's foray into sci-fi young adult fiction, and although you could generously say the movie isn't very good, it is an excellent example of how well the author knows her target market.
Say what you will about Meyer — and I have said so, so much — she does a decent job of tapping into what it's like to be a teen girl. (... as long as you’re a white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender teen girl.) The heroine Meyer created for the "Twilight" saga is sulky, passive Bella Swan, whose stalky sparkle-vamp boyfriend Edward loves her so much he might kill her. Bella is not someone I'd like my hypothetical daughters to idolize, although I'd hope there would be enough inspiring women around to cancel out Bella's noxiousness. I have a hard time putting aside my thoughts about gender dynamics and weird sex stuff in Meyer's "Twilight" books (I don't have a problem with weird sex stuff except when it involves a werewolf imprinting on a fetus), so I hate to admit that there's a teeny teen Jenni inside of me that totally yearned for that feeling of breathless passion and torment. Ugh. I feel a little bit better about "The Host," and here's why.
Although "The Host" hasn't been stirring up the same sort of hyper-frenetic buzz that the never-ending "Twilight" saga enjoyed, it presents a far more interesting and relatable heroine despite the utterly batsh*t plot. Aliens have taken over the world, but they are happy and peaceful and make everything much nicer. The aliens look like those bugs with a million legs that you find in your shower, except white and sparkly (natch), so of course they take up residence in human bodies and transform them into dead-eyed creeps. The creatures are good stand-ins for boring old adults who want to quash freedom. Sure, they made Earth a prettier, nicer place where no one lies or has guns or anything, but it's so lame.
Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is one of the remaining humans who refuse to be captured by the aliens. She's the exact opposite of Bella — things don't happen to Melanie, she makes things happen. Like smooching her boyfriend Jared, played by Max Irons, who promises her that it's okay, they don't have to do it, that he wouldn't expect her to do it even if they were the last man and woman on earth. Wait, there's a teen couple boning in a Meyer's story? Initiated by the girl? What a brave new world this is.
Melanie is a willful, active participant in her own life. When the aliens are closing in on her, she throws herself out of a window to avoid a dead-eyed fate. And when her body becomes host to an alien soul, she's still in there kicking and screaming. She's fighting for control of her body and her fate, not just from the aliens running the world but the other soul who's sharing her body.
Melanie and Wanda -- that's the nickname given to her alien, don't ask -- spent a great deal of the 125 minutes talking amongst themselves and arguing over what to do. This proves to be unintentionally hilarious, because it's nearly impossible to tell the two voices apart. Will they escape? Can Melanie persuade Wanda to go find Jared and Melanie's little brother Jamie? The answer is yes, because once Wanda gets a peek at Melanie's steamy PG-13 make-out sessions with Jared, she starts to have something resembling human emotions. (Perhaps horniness.) This internal fight for control becomes physical when Melanie manages to wrest control of the body on occasion. It's even more amusing when an extra love interest enters the picture, because Wanda likes him but Melanie is still in love with Jared. You can only imagine the sort of confusion this causes; picture a teen version of that infamous sister/daughter scene in "Chinatown," except upside down and backwards and also with parasitic aliens.
"The Host" is not a good movie, but the ideas here speak to the confusing hormonal soup many teenage girls find themselves swimming in at Melanie's age. We want to be independent, even if that means hurting ourselves in the process. We're often torn between two loves, or as Wanda's suitor aptly puts it, of two minds. And it's no coincidence that a large part of the movie is heavy with both threatened and actual violence against Melanie; teen girls are taught that the world is a dangerous place, and it's up to us to protect ourselves or rely on others to rescue us at the last minute. The subtext for this is sexual violence, of course, but we're not in such daring or adult territory. (An aside: As a society, we're still trying to grok that it's not anyone's responsibility to avoid being raped but for people to just not rape each other. Novel, I know.)
If you look at Melanie and Wanda as separate beings, they're like accidental BFFs fighting over boys and what to do on Saturday night. If you take them as one person, it really nails what it's like to be confused and passionate and unsure of what you really want.
"The Host" is pretty silly, and even though I haven't read the source material, it seems likely that the movie hews fairly close to the novel. (It was adapted and directed by Andrew Niccol, who was behind the sci-fi cult fave "Gattaca" and the utterly dreadful "In Time.") I would guess it doesn't stack up against "The Hunger Games," "Boneshaker," "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" or "Divergent" when it comes to world-building and fleshed-out characters, and it probably won't make a big splash among Meyer's fans or at the box office. Which is kind of a shame, because Melanie and Wanda are one (or two?) of Meyer's more interesting characters.