Review: 'The Host'

The ideal, according to Jan and Dean’s “Surf City,” may be two girls for every boy. But Stephenie Meyer has something else in mind entirely: First in the “Twilight” saga and now, in Andrew Niccol’s film version of her nonvampire novel “The Host,” you’re nobody unless you’re a girl with two guys lusting after you at once. Juggling two boyfriends is the new “It” bag.

Admittedly, in “The Host” the girl (Saoirse Ronan as Melanie/Wanda), is really two girls in one: The story takes place on an Earth of the future, where there’s no war, no suffering, nothing but honesty and contentment. Obviously, human beings couldn’t pull off this sort of coup on their own. An alien race known as the Souls have swooped in and taken up residence in the bodies of earthlings, erasing their personalities and memories in the process.

A few renegade humans remain, and at the start of “The Host,” Melanie is one of them. But the Souls take her down and use her body for their nefarious purposes, injecting a few squiggles of light – a kind of extraterrestrial spiritual spermatozoa -- via a laser incision in the back of her neck. Suddenly, Melanie’s body has become host to an intergalactic traveler named Wanderer (her nickname will come later). And her irises have become blue glow-rings, the telltale sign that a Soul has taken over a human body.

But Melanie won’t go gentle into that good night. She struggles to remain alive inside Wanderer, and succeeds in getting her new sidekick to help her find, and ensure the safety of, the little brother she loves, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), the boyfriend she can’t forget, Jared (Max Irons) and the crusty old uncle who’s always ready with a word or two or three of wisdom -- that would be William Hurt’s Uncle Jeb, kitted out in an unfortunate elderly hippie ponytail. Jeb runs sort of a commune for human survivors, and there Melanie/Wanda meets Ian (Jake Abel), who begins to fall in love with Wanda – but not with Melanie – as Jared looks on, jealously.

So you can see how Meyer – along with Niccol, who adapted the screenplay – has fudged the “two guys, one girl” thing, but it’s still as obvious as an alleged human walking around with glowing blue eyes. All the while, Diane Kruger, a kind of Soul policeperson, does her damnedest to track down the escaped Melanie/Wanda and restore order.

“The Host” raises many questions, among them, how has it taken this long for Diane Kruger to play an alien? (With her take-no-prisoners stride and thin little smile, she’s bodaciously good at it.) And while “The Host” offers its share of modest, giggly pleasures – there are brushstroke allusions to sex here and there, but mostly the picture clings to a quaint, resolutely preteen notion of kissing-in-the-rain romance – it does make you wonder: Why aren’t there better roles out there for Ronan? The movie saddles her character with some ridiculous interior monologues: When Melanie/Wanda speaks, it’s Wanda’s voice that comes out; Melanie, trapped inside, is left to stage-whisper quips and rejoinders. The result is often goofy, like something you’d see in a clumsy ’50s melodrama about schizophrenia, but Ronan makes the conceit surprisingly believable. Her face, with those inquisitive eyes and that Mona Lisa nonsmile, always gives the appearance of thinking out loud, anyway; with this role, she’s just taking the idea one step further.

But “The Host” gets bogged down in its “who’s kissing whom now?” dynamics, and it becomes all too easy to snicker at it. (The ending, even for an obvious teen-romance fantasy like this one, is particularly preposterous.) Niccol is usually pretty good at this sort of futuristic business: His last movie, “In Time,” was a sleek and energetic sci-fi machine, a lively parable about the haves and have-nots. (Its release, just as the Operation Wall Street movement was gathering steam, was itself fortuitously timed.)

But “The Host” has none of the spark or casual originality of “In Time.” Maybe too much of the movie takes place on Uncle Jeb’s hippie commune, a scrubby underground cavern covered by a movable dome; the earlier sections, set in the gleaming metallic world the alien Souls have created, is a lot better looking. For one thing, the Soul higher-ups all drift around in white suits, because apparently, this new Earth is so perfect that all dry cleaning is free. And after her Soul-injection procedure, Melanie – now Melanie/Wanda -- wakes up in a shiny nightdress and a bedroom out of “American Gigolo.” I guess we’re supposed to prefer Melanie/Wanda the warrior girl, the one who’s not afraid to get dirty, whose earthy truth-telling is so magnetic that the boys can’t stay away. But “The Host” could use more shiny nightgowns. As style doyenne Diana Vreeland once said, bad taste is better than no taste. And by the end, “The Host” tastes like nothing.

SCORE: 6.0