"Scenes of violence and sensuality" is MPAA code for "completely unacknowledged sexual assaults," so it's got that great Twilight flavor the kids can't get enough of. But what does Andrew Niccol add to this crock of shit? More than you'd think, more than this awful, baldly mercenary stab at box-office success deserved, or would ever reward; but when you look at the end result, you wonder how this movie could ever have these moments when it also has those moments.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer)
With Saoirse Ronan (Melanie Stryder/Wanderer), Diane Kruger (Seeker), William Hurt (Uncle Jeb), Chandler Canterbury (Jamie Stryder), Max Irons (Jared), and Jake Abel (Ian)
Spoiler alert: severe
I watched two movies this past Sunday. One left me feeling not just dirtied but stained, like I needed to take a shower but it would never be enough, with two key scenes that made my bones want to crawl right out of the flesh and into the grave itself only to escape the ugliness I saw on the screen. The other was Antichrist.
Antichrist wasn't very good either, but the subject of this review is The Host, the latest from an auteur of a less Danish persuasion, whose only universally credited classic was sixteen years and four films ago. This doesn't count, of course, his screenplay for Peter Weir's The Truman Show, which for over a decade acquitted itself well in the contention for my favorite movie made after my birth; and it doesn't count Lord of War, which I've always thought was a genuinely great film, but which also has been perennially underrated when it wasn't being simply forgotten altogether. No, as you know, I'm speaking of Gattaca—a film that traditionally has been my second favorite movie of my lifetime.
I've spoken, briefly, of Andrew Niccol's career before. I intend to use this as an excuse to speak about it at length.
The prototypical Andrew Niccol joint is a piece of radical anti-capitalist propaganda expressed through an unsubtle science fictional parable, one created with detailed world-building that nonetheless doesn't really hold up to exacting scrutiny, or, on occasion, the most cursory consideration. Niccol's name, in adjectival form, could easily be applied to films from the basically okay The Purge to the extraordinary Moon to total crap. Which we'll get to in time. Get it? Get it?
Despite taking on an adaptation of a Stephanie Meyer novel for (one presumes) those sweet, sweet ducats, I still consider Niccol an auteur. But this is easy enough—Paul Greengrass is an auteur, and I'm not going to be writing a paean to his work anytime soon, nor a eulogy for his career—not, I pray, that this is what I am doing now for Niccol.
To be more specific, I still consider Niccol to be a great director, or at least a great storyteller with a straightforward but highly watchable directorial style, not unlike, say, John Carpenter. Also like Carpenter, Niccol may be unfussy, but isn't boring, and also has a few flashy flourishes in his arsenal. The most enjoyable is, I think, his closeups of mundane processes, sometimes so extreme as to abstract the action into an almost unrecognizable but beautiful fugue, as in the opening of Gattaca, depicting Vincent Freeman's daily DNA-cleansing ritual at a microscopic level, long before revealing Freeman as a figure in the story; and this idea can also be seen in the opening of Lord of War, as we follow a bullet through its lifetime, from its cradle in an American factory to its grave in the skull of an African soldier.
The real giveaway for any Andrew Niccol film, however, is an eye for a certain style of production design, certainly in the super-modernist lines of his places of business, but most tellingly in the futuristic automobiles that in each Niccol film look as if they have been driven out of an entirely different 1970s science fiction feature, but could also have been sold on the same car lot, each fleet bought brand new but five years apart.
So, using a lawyerly analysis, the elements of a Niccolesque film are:
1)a premise that revolves around a high concept idea that either a)illuminates a contradiction within today's society from a frankly leftist standpoint or b)describes a growing threat to tomorrow's;
2)a protagonist who is against the world order but represents a natural order;
3)a set of rules governing the world order that does not make sense and in fact cannot make sense; and4)some cars that get redressed to make them look like they would not seem out of place if driven by David Carradine or Robert Duvall.
By this point I have to admit, at least to you if not to myself, that coming up with a definition for a word as unlikely to ever be uttered as "Niccolesque" involves a truly pathological amount of wishful thinking. And yet in the early 00s, he had been credentialied by consensus as science fiction cinema's strongest high conceiver, a master of the fantastic allegory and the completely literal cautionary tale alike. And before we move on, let's relive those days, that now seem so long ago.
The year is 1997: "I never saved anything for the swim back."
Convinced that the genetic engineering of human beings is evil (or, rather, in Gattaca's scenario, that the eugenic selection of human embryos is evil), Niccol's greatest and most memorable film is a passionate and genuine plea that we do not create a caste system once our technology is capable of it. (Of course, if we can make better humans, we obviously should, because we're fucking terrible. Gattaca is thus an amazing film with a profoundly sinister motive. In this regard, it's not unlike Triumph of the Will. Which is a phrase that, were it not so inescapably associated with the Nazism Gattaca fears and despises so much that it rushes to espouse practically Stalinist views on genetics, would be a pretty nice one-clause summation of the film's secondary theme.)
Score, Gattaca: 10/10
The year is 1998: "And in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!"
If Niccol's directorial debut is about exactly what it says it's about, The Truman Show, his first produced screenplay (which hit theaters after his first movie), cloaks its intentions, hiding a titanic struggle against the God who has betrayed us behind the trappings of a reality TV satire . The camouflage was so complete that many didn't even notice what the movie was about. Even with that really, really obvious line read by Ed Harris.
One can imagine a sad alternate universe, however, where Niccol was pemitted to direct despite the risk The Truman Show's huge budget entailed, and where he had not been required by Paramount and Weir to rewrite the movie some twelve times to make it funnier and lighter and, let's face it, better. In that world, every other line could easily have been about how escaping the creator of a television show sure is an awful lot like losing your religion.
Score, The Truman Show: 10/10
The year is 2002: This movie did have speaking parts, right?
Simone, more often rendered by the faintly embarrassing moniker S1m0ne (see also "Se7en", which is even stupider), is another technological extrapolation, prophesying the demise of the human actor as fully computer-rendered perfection takes the place of the flesh on our digital streams. Hardly anyone remembers it, including me. I think it was okay. Considered a lost film, no one has seen S1m0ne in almost ten years.
Score, S1m0ne: 6/10 (probably)
(Then, in or around 2004, Niccol came up with the story idea for The Terminal, which given that it was based on, like, this real guy, must have involved reading a newspaper article to Steven Spielberg. But, in any event, I've never seen it.)
The year is 2005: "There are two types of tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it."
Lord of War is the odd one out in Niccol's filmography, with nothing science fictional in the film at all; at absolute most, the film's reality heightens on occasion to a pitch that would not be alien to the tone of a less-than-entirely-serious spy thriller. A character piece for the ages, Niccol presents here a Nicolas Cage performance to remind you that the man could once act your soul into submission, as Yuri Orlov, the Russian-American immigrant who made good as an international merchant of death. Lord of War offers a depressed, hopeless meditation on the nature of humanity, within a conventionally entertaining package. I loved it!
Score, Lord of War: 8/10
The year is 2011: "Don't waste my time."
Then came In Time, the long-awaited fourth film, seeing the man working once again in the science fiction mines. Unfortunately, what audiences received, instead of a return to form along with a return to substance, was the ultimate Niccolesque concoction, and it proved too heady a brew. Possessed less of a hybrid vigor than severe inbreeding depression, In Time combined both of Niccol's two strongest tendencies at their absolute worst, his penchant for preaching directly into the choir's face matched with incredibly poorly thought-out science fiction.
The Truman Show and Gattaca had improbable worlds, to be sure—in what America are we really going to allow corporations to purchase children? in what possible sense is a literal rocket scientist with a young Ethan Hawke's body "Invalid"?—but the implausibility always inherent in a Niccol script was magnified tenfold in a world where time is currency, and poverty courts instant death upon the running of your in-built timer. It is a metaphor so blunt it becomes literal again and cannot be taken as anything but utterly unbelievable and phenomenally goofy.
The already bad script gets dragged down further by unsophisticated and unengaging performances, particularly poor, lost Justin Timberlake's, with the reliable, undeniable Cillian Murphy sadly wasting his talents on an awful character (he's a cop, called a "Timekeeper"... my God, I just realized that this movie was actually made). Only Vincent Kartheiser as a believably cruel and bored immortal rises above the material at all, and in a pretty amazing way, if only for the briefest of moments.
Because, say what I might about the rest of the movie, it does have the best cards scene I've ever seen; sure, the premise is stupid, but when it allows someone to literally bet every last second of their life on a hand of poker, the real problem might have been that the script ever let Kartheiser and Timberlake leave the table.
Score, In Time: 4/10
The year is 2013: "It wasn't our planet anymore."
And then there's The Host, where ineptitude is replaced—no, let us say just supplemented—by oversights so outrageous and inexplicable that they exceed merely troubling and can be accurately described as sadly hilarious. You know, the kind of hilarious where you laugh so that you do not cry.
Actually, and not so surprisingly because it is, after all, still an Andrew Niccol film, The Host starts off strongly enough, with a frankly great slow zoom in on our island Earth, accompanied by an expository narration by one of our better performers, not just in this movie, but in all movies.
His voice is recognizable, but not quite identifiable; we'll see him in about forty-five minutes. For now, we happily let him explain the premise to us, even though it's shown well enough in subsequent scenes as to be rendered entirely obvious to anyone who has ever watched a movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers happened, and the body snatchers won; human society has been remolded to be efficient, peaceful, and pleasant; and the aliens love the color silver.
Almost all of the human race has been assimilated by the creatures, called Souls, who travel in little pods and look quite actionably like the body snatchers floating through space from the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake, with the main difference being that they glow with the finest blue-white light that bad CGI can offer. Unlike in Body Snatchers '78, they never look like physical objects. But, in a better movie, I suppose they'd serve.
A few humans eke out lives of mere survival. One of them is Melanie Stryder, who is cornered in the first real scene and physically forced to accept the penetration of her body by a foreign object. In this particular case, it's a Soul named Wanderer, but it sets the motif: The Host is largely about going inside Melanie's body without her consent.
However, since it's still a body snatchers film, and the trope has been rendered so innocuous, we forget, at first, that body snatching, when not depicted as outright murder, is basically the most heinous form of rape possible—another being turning your body into its vehicle and overriding your free will for the rest of your existence. Well, it's not shown as murder here; it's totally rape. It's rape-rape, as they say.
Unless you were showing a lot of skull, in which case, honestly, didn't you bring it on yourself? I mean, we have to be realistic here.
Usually the snatching job is so complete on the Soul's part that the original personality is tamped down tight, never to resurface—although we learn, much later, that they are never truly dead. But in Melanie and Wanderer's case, Melanie is still entirely conscious and entirely present and way up in Wanderer's business as if she weren't an object or something. She can even resist, to a small but increasing degree, Wanderer's physical command over her peripheral nervous system.
Though obviously she (and the other hosts) can still see out of their own eyes, and hear with their own ears, it's unclear whether Melanie can experience physical touch sensations. I don't see any reason why not; but in most scenes, it doesn't seem like they do, because when Wanderer is in pain, for example when she's been walking for days in the desert fun, and looks like Blondie after Tuco left him to die, Melanie is just gabbing away like she doesn't give a shit. But I think she is supposed to be able to feel; and, shockingly, it is entirely possible that no one gave any thought at all as to whether Melanie should also communicate discomfort when her body is dehydrated, her skin is blistered, and she is dying.
Oh, did I mention that Saoirse Ronan, playing Melanie's body and hence both her body's owner and its snatcher, talks to herself in a combination of talking on camera as Wanderer and a dubbed-in voiceover as Melanie? Did I also mention that, whatever her putative merits as a screen actress, Saoirse Ronan is a fucking terrible vocal performer?
Andrew Niccol is not obviously a great director of actors. When he has talent at his disposal, he can tap its power for his own ends: in Gattaca, he had one of the finest casts of any film in my generation, namely Sir Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman (and by no means let us forget Alan Arkin!). That movie is thus spectacularly acted. Lord of War is, as noted, one of Nic Cage's best performances for non-ironic purposes. But look to Jared Leto. He's an okay actor, of course, but he basically just reprises his performance from Requiem For a Dream, repurposed somewhat for the context of a gun-running movie. And then for the ultimate proof watch In Time, where actors lacking much experience, and perhaps lacking talent, turn in turds, and Niccol cannot teach them what to do with their shit.
Well, if Niccol doesn't know how to direct an actor on set, that goes double or maybe treble for voice acting in a studio. Ronan's voiceover is very probably the worst acting of the year, and almost seems like someone reading the lines without the benefit of the remainder of the script. I'm sure Niccol didn't actually do this, but if you told me that Ronan recorded her narration before a single frame had been shot or even any other lines had been written, it would at least make it explicable.
Because the damned part is, Ronan's not terrible on camera. By no means, do not construe this as a statement to the effect that "Ronan is good." Nobody—well, only one person—is "good" in this movie. And it is not any of the younger cast. But other than the unexpected veteran, on the screen Ronan is still probably the best of her peers, and hedges toward "competence" more often than "bad." If you'll permit me a Twilight comparison, as I'm sure you must given the source material, she's somewhat closer to Ashley Greene than Kristen Stewart. You can tell she's alive; you can imagine her to be a cognitively normal young adult; and you can suppose she is possessed of basic emotions. That this completely mediocre acting effort represents a tremendous improvement over that other Stephanie Meyer creation is very sad, but this is where we stand. These are dark times.
But whether onscreen Ronan is any good or not, voiceover Ronan is still there, and that's who onscreen Ronan talks to for most of the movie.
Wanderer is forced by Melanie's inner monologue's insistence to try to seek out her boyfriend and little brother. After the aforementioned long walk through the desert, she does find them. She's also being hunted by a policewoman of the Body Snatcher World Order, the one played by Diane Kruger, who has become obsessed with Wanderer's case.
It's here that most of the good stuff in The Host happens. And there is good stuff. For one, it's where our good actor, William Hurt—and I just watched Altered States again, what a movie!—finally shows up. He's horribly miscast. Oh, not because the role is not for him. Or because he does anything weird in it. In fact, he's great. The problem is he makes everyone else look like actors in a high school play and every time he acts next to Ronan, let alone either of the two male leads, you can see them struggling not to cry in the face of something they could hardly have known even existed, that is, professional acting sufficient not only to make an audience believe a fictional event is occurring on their theater or television screen, but to make 'em give a hoot.
The first half of this movie is, likewise, better written than it has any right to be, and Andrew Niccol in his role both as screen adapter and director, even if at some point he must have given up, makes the first and part of the second act passably interesting.
Wanderer arrives at a secret compound inside a mesa, whose inhabitants have built an elaborate system of mirrors and use their reflected light to grow a field of grain inside their stone redoubt. This quaintly SFnal notion of a farm where a farm shouldn't be is rendered painterly by Niccol's camera, and it is a gorgeous, however minimalist, image. And more than that, one shot promised me that The Host was about to become genuinely awesome, not just passable entertainment, but hardcore, straight-up Niccolesque social commentary.
Andrew. Niccol. Fuck. Yeah.
And that is a great idea; and an indelible image. It is the most atrocious bad luck for this image, and for Andrew Niccol, and for Western civilization, that it had to be in The fucking Host.
Because The Host, contrary to what you might expect from its director, never grapples with the concepts of its premise. It never even—as, I admit, you'd really expect from its director—looks at the conflict between perfect, peaceful order and messy human emotionalism, and without a great deal of thought launches into an unasked-for defense of the latter accompanied by an inaccurate, manipulative vilification of the former.
The Host doesn't really touch on "themes," to speak of, at all, despite Niccol's insistent belief, shared in interviews, that the movie is somehow about "tolerance." I guess it is. It's about tolerating people using your body for their own purposes, which is a Good Thing, it turns out.
What The Host is about, then, is the weird love triangle (or quadrangle, just like American Hustle! except a lot worse!) between Melanie's half-submerged consciousness and her boyfriend, and the active consciousness of Wanderer and another survivor at Uncle Jeb's mesa compound.
Uncle Jeb is, believe it or not, the least threatening male figure in this movie.
And to be fair, there's nothing wrong with this set-up, as a set-up. It begins miles above the similar love triangle in the Twilight series, if for no other reason than its end is not so boringly foreordained. If it seems to initially involve actual relatable feelings—confusion, fear, repression, anger—all the better. If it can lead us to places fucked up beyond all belief, hey, I am more than happy to follow.
But it must be aware of how fucked up it is.
Not quite two thirds of the way through the movie The Scene happens. One of the two guys—his name is Ian—has gotten Wanderer alone, and he's horny.
Hey, it's the end of the world, I get it. And indeed there are literally no other women of childbearing age seen up close in this movie (until much later it turns out they were apparently there the whole time). The idea of procreation being a duty to be borne regardless of consent in such apocalyptic times is never brought up, because it's interesting.
Ian likes Wanderer—as opposed to the first guy, who likes Melanie. Wanderer argues that he likes Melanie's body; he argues that this isn't the case. This is complete bullshit because he's known her for a couple of weeks at most and most of what he knows about her is that she's a body snatcher; however, as it's not impossible that a narrative could have been constructed where he falls in love with the alien personality resident in an unwilling human body, and since I don't want this movie to be three hours long, I'm fully willing to spot it on this. So he makes a move.
Melanie's voice, inside Wanderer, may not have a mouth but she must mildly complain.
Melanie treats this kiss with all the seriousness of discovering a cat absentmindedly sharpening its claws on her couch, rather than as the prelude to a terrifying sexual assault by two assailants, undertaken while she has been subjected to the equivalent of a paralytic drug that permits her to continue seeing and sensing everything happening to her the whole time these two people are slaking themselves inside her.
Except that's only half the story here, because what's actually happening is that Melanie's body is a meat puppet that feels whatever Wanderer feels; so I imagine if Wanderer enjoys permitting this body to get fucked by a rapist, Melanie would be forced to endure her rape as physical pleasure, which might be better, might be worse, but is certainly way fucking weirder than anything anyone should have to deal with.
In film's—I mean Film's, not this film's—worst line, Ian asks if Melanie wouldn't mind stepping into the other room.
Jesus wept, but not at Hellraiser; Stephanie Meyer is the real explorer in the further regions of experience.
But before you can say "Irreversible!," Wanderer calls the whole thing off. Not because it's awful, or because Melanie's spirit is getting crushed, but rather because she has Confused Emotions of the Bella Swan-like variety.
Things continue in this impossibly off-putting manner through the rest of the film, with no one ever even approaching a discussion of the real issues raised—not even Uncle Jeb—until, finally, Wanderer accedes to Melanie's wises and returns her body to her, upon which time, for no reason whatsoever (it is not guilt), she elects to die instead of being removed and shot off to another planet with more pliant hosts (really, it is not guilt—a species whose very existence is so predatory and horrifying that, morally, it must self-destruct? that would be interesting). It's because such a course would take hundreds of years and all the people on Earth she cared about would be blah blah fuckity blah.
Ian doesn't want this to happen, because now he Truly Loves her. The obvious solution is so profoundly obvious that it is never brought up, not even mentioned, even though it occurred to me and no doubt every other member of the audience instantly: Wanderer should, if she should do anything other than die, which she shouldn't, because she deserves to die, although no one says or thinks this, take Ian as her new host. Why doesn't this happen? I don't know. It's even suitably Meyerlike, with its Lovers. Together. FOREVER. Thing.
This movie is stupid.
But Wanderer does not go quietly into that dark night. Instead, despite her express wishes—no woman shall be allowed to do with her body as she pleases, even if it's to die, because then you can't fuck it—oh wait, yes, you the hell you can—Wanderer is given another body. A corpse. Ewwww.
But wait. This is a body without any injuries, and unless her skull is literally empty and Wanderer's nasty spindle form is interfacing directly with the nerves that permit her undamaged legs to walk around and allow her presumably undamaged vagina to convulse around this guy, that body is alive. That body. Is alive. The person in it must be alive! And no one cares.
"Kill me. Please. Kill me."
This movie is terrifying. And it doesn't even know it.
Therefore, this movie is fucking awful.
By the end, I have to wonder if Niccol is playing some kind of incredibly dangerous game here, creating a self-destructive stealth satire of Stephie Meyer and her unexamined kinks, presented to the world for all to see and emphatically fail to enjoy.
But Andy, I don't think that's what happened. I don't know what happened. And I don't care what happened. Just, please—get well soon, and come home.
Scoree, The Host: 1/10
P.S.: "Chandler Canterbury"?