Everybody loves dystopias right now. And we're in the middle of a huge boom in movies about sexy young people who are struggling to figure out their identities and which hottie they want to boink. Both of these trends are inherently absurd, so it's a pleasure to encounter a movie that embraces the absurdity as joyously as The Host. Andrew Niccol's new movie is so willing to be bad, you might just fall in love with its goofiness.
Minor spoilers ahead... Like, no major plot twists or anything.
No matter what, The Host was always going to be like whitewater rafting down a river of cheese. It's the movie adaptation of a bestselling adult novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, about an alien invasion that is mostly notable for giving rise to a romantic dilemma wackier than "a young girl chooses between a werewolf and a vampire." But Andrew Niccol, the king of fake utopias, was an inspired choice to direct the movie version — and the big surprise is that he fully commits to the romance rather than subsuming it in his usual dystopian concerns.
So in The Host, a bunch of alien symbiotes have come to Earth and taken over people's bodies. Like the Trill, sort of. When you're occupied by one of these "Souls," you become ultra-peaceful and rational. By the time the movie begins, the human race is 99 percent Soul-controlled, and as a result poverty, hunger and war have been eliminated.
Saoirse Ronan plays Melanie, one of the last remaining free humans, who gets caught and implanted with a Soul named Wanderer, or "Wanda" for short. Because Melanie is strong-willed and ornery, she keeps fighting for control of her own body after Wanda is occupying it. As Wanda tries to sift through Melanie's memories for information that could help her race track down Melanie's friends, the intensity of Melanie's love for her boyfriend and her kid brother starts to influence Wanda.
Soon enough, Wanda/Melanie is living with a group of unconquered humans, who have to decide whether they can trust someone who's been implanted with an alien organism.
Going into this film, I wasn't sure if I could watch an entire movie where Saoirse Ronan stares into space while her own voice yells at her in her head. Or where Ronan argues with the voice in her head. And in fact, this device is even more bonkers than I'd expected, since there are lots of sequences in the film that revolve around whether the inner Saoirse approves of the outer Saoirse's decision to make out with some hot boy. (Generally, Inside Saoirse does not approve of Outside Saoirse's nookie.) Watching Ronan get hot and heavy with a boy while her own voice shouts, in a Texan accent, "Don't you dare kiss him!" never stops being laugh-out-loud funny.
The rest of the movie is pretty ripe for drinking games and MST3K-ing, too. The aliens are mostly doing a pretty close impression of the invaders from the recent V reboot. The plucky rebels holding out against the aliens are a pretty solemn bunch. The romantic pouting and smoldering gets pretty pouty and smoldery. The main villain (Diane Kruger) is basically a one-note character, despite the vague suggestions that we're supposed to be seeing her get more unhinged.
Every time you think The Host can't possibly get cheesier or more like an extended episode of a show on The CW, the movie ratchets up the melodrama, or someone watches the sunset while getting shmoopy, or Ronan has another shouting match with herself.
And yet, even though The Host is objectively a terrible movie, I found myself falling in love with its shlockiness, and I suspect you might, too. Even as I laughed at the over-the-top dialogue and everyone's attempts to play this situation absolutely straight, I got sucked in to caring about which hot boy Saoirse Ronan would end up with, and how exactly she would sort out her divided loyalties.
The lion's share of the credit for this goes to Ronan, who I'm now convinced is one of the great actors of her generation. She takes material that almost any actor would struggle to make convincing, and she just crushes it. The most compelling relationship in the film isn't between a boy and a girl, but between Saoirse Ronan and Saiorse Ronan. She somehow manages to make you feel that she's playing two characters, who are bitterly at odds but slowly become allies and even friends — all without getting to show you one of those two people with any physicality.
Ronan's performance is emotional enough, and strong enough, that she manages to make a film that, by rights, should be only "so bad it's good" into "also sort of good on its own merits." By the end of the film, when Ronan is struggling with a series of dilemmas, I found myself fully on board with her. It's probably the ultimate test of an actor — anybody can be good in a good movie, but being good in a terrible movie is a major achievement.
Added to that, this movie takes the themes that were most interesting in Meyer's original novel and teases them out a bit, including Niccol's usual concern about how much we're willing to give up to get a shiny perfect world. And the question of how the tiny population of free humans should deal with their colonizers, and whether it's possible for humans to become friends with the invaders. Ultimately, The Host also asks some pretty interesting questions about identity, and whether it's our bodies or our minds that drive and define us.
All in all, The Host is one of those movies that offers two kinds of fun — you'll laugh your ass off at the cheesy aliens and the over-the-top love polygon. And then, at some point, you might just find yourself being sucked in to actually caring about the struggles of the woman who's of two minds, and being won over by Ronan's uncommonly strong performance.