Review of The Host, Directed by Andrew Niccol
By Jennilee Miller
The Host opens with different snapshots from around the globe, panning out on different faces, distinctly human but with striking eyes encircled with a silver rim around the pupils: beautiful and kind of creepy all at the same time. A voiceover tells us that this is the future, humanity is all but extinct, and another species has taken over earth. This other species, alien “Souls,” take over the human bodies to control their minds and access their memories.
The Souls see themselves as benevolent, and in many senses, this is true. They are honest, peaceable, careful stewards of the environment and life. As The Seeker (played by Diane Kruger) says “We do not change this world, but experience and perfect it.” Their occupation of earth has created a Utopia, yet there remains a fringe of humans who resist.
Melanie Strider, her younger brother Jamie and her boyfriend Jared are humans without alien Souls living as vagabonds, scraping by for survival. Together they make plans to find Melanie’s Uncle Jeb and others who are living in hiding in the desert. En route, Melanie is discovered by The Seeker (who, as the name indicates, seeks out human resistance). Rather than be captured, Melanie attempts suicide. The Healers are able to do for Melanie exactly as their name implies, and they surgically insert a Soul, called Wanderer, into Melanie’s perfectly healed body. As Wanderer awakes, now inhabiting Melanie’s body, The Seeker warns her that sometimes the human does not fully disappear and the host body will resist the Soul. This is indeed the case. Melanie is very much present and actively pushes back, pleads, tries to reason with, manipulates and eventually [spoiler] persuades Wanderer to defect.
This story is based on the book by Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight books. Despite the weaknesses of the Twilight movies, some of the ideas in the story—vampires who fight against their natural urge to kill—lent themselves to interesting Christian reflection. Similarly, The Host gives a lot material to chew on.
There are Christian themes of grace. Uncle Jeb has an opportunity to kill Wanderer, and everyone expects him to do so, but he shows mercy and discernment instead. When The Seeker finally discovers the humans’ compound and tries to kill them, they show mercy by not only sparing the life of Seeker (the Soul), but also the human she is occupying.
Additionally, the story is rife with allusions to imperialism: aliens “benevolently” colonizing earth, seemingly managing it better than the locals do, yet at the cost of locals’ freedom and identity. There are plenty of political themes that you could tease out.
Melanie/Wanderer eventually evade The Seeker and find the humans that Melanie loves. There are complications that arise as Melanie, her mind and body, are in love with Jared. But Wanderer (who by this time in the movie is called Wanda) falls in love with Ian. But the love quadrangle is not the story at the heart of the movie: it is the unexpected sisterly bond that develops between Melanie and Wanda.
But the question remains: Who has a right to this body? It’s wrong for Melanie to be trapped in her own mind. Yet, it was not Wanda who elected to take over Melanie’s body. The solution seems to be to simply surgically separate the two, but, every time Doc tries to remove an alien Soul from a human body, both Soul and Human die. There is a scene in the movie when Wanda discovers that Doc has been attempting to separate Souls from Hosts. Sheets cover corpses, but in plain sight is a severed corpse of a discarded Soul (which look a lot like a plump silver millipede to me), and Wanda unravels. The post-mortem treatment of Souls says it all to Wanda. To humans, the Souls are discarded parasites, not even worthy of a shroud of respect in death. It becomes very clear that the only goal of these surgeries is to preserve the human and discard the “parasite.”What begins as Melanie’s understandable hate and resentment toward the Soul that has occupied her body leads to an unexpected understanding, even affection. By mid-movie, you are wrestling with the sympathy you feel for both Melanie and Wanda. Melanie did everything in her power – even attempting suicide – to avoid being invaded by this alien species. The idea of being trapped in your own mind is terrifying. Yet, as you learn more about Wanda, her genuine kindness, loyalty and capacity for love stir great affection for her. The film avoids simply characterizing Wanda as the enemy just because she is the one occupying Melanie’s body. And as Melanie and Wanda learn to work together a friendship develops. It’s good story-telling when you begin to feel loyalty to both sides of a conflict.
But in that moment, the characters begin to question: If it were possible to separate Soul from Host, isn’t Wanda’s life worth something? Or is it just Melanie’s life that has worth because she had the initial claim on the body, and therefore Wanda’s is dispensable? Melanie herself [spoiler] eventually decides she would rather accept Wanda’s life, at the expense of her own freedom, rather than see Wanda die.
For the last 40 years, thousands of people flock to Washington DC each January to “March for Life.” Roe v. Wade sent the message to America that the Host body is the life that matters, and that a fetus is nothing more than a parasite unworthy of protection. I couldn’t help but think of this as I watched this movie. In the last 40 years, 55 million “parasites” who depend on their host mother’s body for survival have become tiny souls discarded into pathological waste bins. The parallel may or may not be intentional, but few movies have the courage to suggest this uncomfortable fact, even in metaphor.