Sleek science fiction and swoony teen romance collide in “The Host,” an adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s non-Twilight novel that’s smarter and subtler than the overwrought vampire/werewolf saga ever was.
Credit director-screenwriter Andrew Niccol, who has built a career creating visually arresting, sexy science-fiction thrillers that work, notably “Gattaca” (1997) and “In Time” (2011). Niccol’s intelligent script cuts to the core of Meyer’s original premise — aliens invading Earth by taking over humans’ bodies, and what happens when one girl’s mind doesn’t give way to the new occupant — and applies an appealing gloss to it.
The girl in question is Melanie Stryker (played by “Hanna” star Saoirse Ronan), among the last of a hardy group of humans who have resisted being taken over by the aliens. Even after she jumps out of a high window, she survives, and the alien bounty hunters — called the Seekers — take her in to implant her with an alien “soul.”
This alien, which calls itself Wanderer, tries to adjust to its new body, only to find that Melanie is still rattling around inside. Melanie (depicted by Ronan in voiceover) urges Wanderer to escape the Seekers and search for Melanie’s crotchety uncle Jeb (William Hurt), who has established a lone human outpost in the desert. Wanderer (later called just Wanda) also sees glimpses of Melanie’s memories of her kid brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her on-the-run romance with hunky Jared (Max Irons).
Melanie/Wanda eventually finds Uncle Jeb and his cohorts, including Jared, who hates Wanda for taking over his girlfriend’s body. But while he’s figuring out his feelings, Wanda is getting her own taste of human love — by falling, cautiously, for Jared’s buddy Ian (Jake Abel). Meanwhile, one determined Seeker (Diane Kruger) stays hot on Melanie/Wanda’s trail.
Meyer’s take on the sci-fi genre is larded with clichés and dialogue that can be paraphrased as “these humans are different from the other species we’ve inhabited” and “what is this Earth custom you call ‘kissing’?” But Niccol makes the near-future look really cool with futuristic visuals, including shiny chrome-plated sports cars and a big-box store stocked with generic-label goods —the aliens cured Earth of capitalist competition, healed the environment and ended wars.
Meyer’s romantic sense, cribbed from the back pages of a junior-high girl’s Trapper Keeper, is given a bit of depth by the strong cast — particularly Ronan, who has the acting chops to convey Wanda’s ethereal otherness and Melanie’s fierce independence.
“The Host” could easily get stuck in a no-man’s-land between rabid Twilight fans, who will find the romantic entanglements too underplayed, and the equally rabid Twilight haters, who will shun anything associated with Meyer. If either side is willing to give it a chance, they might be happily surprised.
A plucky teen fights an alien invasion within her body in this smart adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s novel.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for some sensuality and violence.
Running time • 125 minutes.