Across America this weekend, wives and girlfriends will accompany their fellas to G.I. Joe: Retaliation, as boys-shooting-boys movies are considered movies for everyone, their violent heroism the default American fantasy. How many of those fellas do you think will reciprocate with a trip to The Host, a post–alien-invasion survivalist tale based on a novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer — and to feature a heroine whose problems involve who to kiss rather than just who to kill?
I ask not because The Host is something I recommend, especially. Like GI Joe: Retaliation, it's a competent fulfillment of its generic promise, the kind of movie you'll like if it's the kind of movie you like.
As with the Twilight series, The Host's infelicities — drab dialogue, ridiculous plotting, more emotional crises than there is story — are enlivened by its thematic eccentricities. You know how most fantasy adventure films have their orcs or stormtroopers or Germans who the good guys have a grand time genociding? The Host's heroine — or heroines (more on that later) — actually forbids her friends from killing any of the parasitic space-protozoa that have taken over the bodies of most of Earth's population and are actively hunting down the last human survivors.
Of course, that's only after she's slumped about for much of the story (in true Stephenie Meyer fashion) trying to choose between two hunks who seemed to me interchangeable — despite living holed up in a Utah cave, far from civilization, both seem to have gym memberships and limitless access to hair product. That heroine is named Melanie, or Wanda the Wanderer: Captured by the aliens in the film's first scene, her human self, Melanie (played by Saoirse Ronan), was subjected to the implanting of a part-doily, part-Sea Monkey space-soul, a new consciousness that is supposed to wipe out the earlier her.
But people are stubborn and hopeful — if we weren't, we wouldn't we keep turning out for multiplex movies. Melanie's mind insists on continuing to occupy her body, even as that body's new mind, belonging to the alien Wanda, is tasked by its supervisors with ransacking Melanie's memories for the locations of the not-yet-implanted humans Melanie knew. For a while, this plays out like a buddy-cop adventure in which the two cops share one brain; while Melanie bickers with Wanda over what their body should do or say, Ronan has to strike an expression and just hold it, kind of like sitcom stars waiting for the canned laughs to die. In the opening scenes, she's often shot in the electro-blue tint and with the pained eyes familiar from commercials for antidepressants. (Ronan makes catatonic two-brain freakouts somehow personable.)
To the credit of everyone involved, there's an unsettling tension to these sequences, as well as some of that urgent, real-life-gone-genre-fiction allusiveness that has made Meyer's books so popular: Here's a miserable young woman forced to fit into a homogenized society even as a voice inside urges her to rebel, to be herself instead.
Melanie and Wanda learn to work together and arrive at a common cause, and then they escape from the silliest of all possible imprisonments: a third-story hotel room with unlocked windows, located over a swimming pool.
There's plenty of time to wonder, during the rote chase scenes, whether the glossy, hive-minded Earth of the aliens is meant to suggest the Mormon church that Meyer belongs to. The conformity! The King Family smiles! But then Melanie/Wanda meets up with a band of desert survivors led by a brilliant, grizzled farmer (William Hurt) who everyone thinks is mad — and who has it in him to plant underground wheat fields in which his people engage in picturesque toil right out of the Dutch impressionists. Maybe it's all an inter-LDS conflict.
In this new Eden, waiting out an attack from the aliens, Melanie/Wanda spends far too much screentime frumping about, each of her selves in love with a different survivor. This being Meyer's world, no affair of mind or body is consummated. Much of the movie passes with Melanie/Wanda waiting for men to make her decisions for her — that leader, a kid, both of her paramours. Once she is stirred to action of her own, it is to argue for peace.
This isn't quite like if Princess Leia, post-Alderaan, urged appeasement with the Empire as she sulked over whether she preferred Luke or Han. Instead, Melanie/Wanda understands the low odds of a human victory and hits upon a solution that isn't all pew-pew. She even suggests to the surviving Earthlings that best way to handle the invading force is to show it love — the thing that makes us human, and the thing that the aliens can learn from. For all her programmatic love triangles, Meyer's fantasy is at least humane.
When the UFOs come down and hijack our bodies, I probably won't be on the side of love. But it could not be a bad thing if fans of G.I. Joe on occasion had cause to consider an option besides killing every motherfucker in the room. YA fans, if you're going to see this, please trick some angry young men into coming along, would you?