I am not the target audience for Andrew Niccol’s new film The Host, adapted from the novel by Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame. For all its gestures towards sci-fi-as-political-allegory (shadowy government agencies, alien mind control, a dystopia that resembles a utopia), The Host is primarily concerned with a specific stage of adolescence—one in which sexual desire is very new, vaguely shameful, and above all deeply terrifying. It will probably have most to say to the teenage girls who up till now have been Meyers’s most loyal fan base, but there’s plenty there for the guys, too, if they see it, which seems unlikely. (When I was in middle school, at least, we could only approve of movies that had a certain level of macho clout. It would’ve been good for us to have seen films like The Host once in a while.)
Like many films aimed at audiences for whom braces, crushes, and out-of-control hormones are very real facts of life, The Host is marked by a strange balance of wish fulfillment and glad-it’s-not-me relationship chaos. It’s a melodrama for the age of Facebook “It’s complicated” status. Worried about asking out that girl you like? Be glad you’re not living in a post–alien-invasion mind-control state, and that your crush hasn’t been taken over by an alien that looks vaguely like a glowing, spindly amoeba—or not, since at least the amoeba (safely contained in the body of a pretty young woman) is totally into you. Feeling excluded? At least your own family doesn’t suspect you of turning them over to the invaders after you’ve just staggered through a desert to find your uncle’s cavern hideaway. Torn between two potential boyfriends? Just imagine having to argue with the hormonal extraterrestrial trapped inside your head over which square-cheekboned suitor to accept—and then imagine that, for some not entirely clear reason, you have to make yourself jealous by making out with both dudes in the span of about 30 seconds. Wondering how to apologize to your first girlfriend over sending a flirty text to her friend? At least when you hang your head and say “I’m sorry,” you don’t really mean “I’m sorry for running deadly experiments on your race of ageless alien beings in my underground cave-laboratory.”
If I was convinced that it made sense to review all films according to the same critical criteria, then I’d have fewer reservations about saying that this one has a big heart and a very small success rate; that its dialogue is embarrassingly flat, obvious, and often completely unnecessary; that it’s an entirely character-driven film whose characters range from one-note Strong Female Protagonists to Abercrombie cutouts; that it takes itself far too seriously to be fun, or at least to be in on its own joke; that one scene involving an adorable young boy and an infected wound defied even my limited knowledge of medicine, not to mention my high sentimentality threshold.
If anything, I’m inclined to be tougher on a film which tries so nakedly to exploit its target audience by playing to their every insecurity and unspoken desire. In the same way, I think it would be deeply condescending to say that The Host just wasn’t meant for me, when I really mean that it was made for people who don’t give a damn about whether or not it’s any good. To call out a film for its faults is to suggest that it deserves to be held to a high standard of quality; to withhold judgment is to place the film—and by extension those who appreciate it—not beyond criticism, but beneath it.
Still, there may be more productive ways to respond to The Host than expecting it to be well-made, well-written, and thoughtful, or even wishing that it wouldn’t take itself so seriously. People go to the movies for radically different reasons, and I suspect many of those who go to see The Host are looking for something other than either refined writing or sugar-rush enjoyment. They want a film that has some rapport with their life outside the theater, one that lets them see their own anxieties reflected on screen, magnified and distorted as in a fun-house mirror, and watch those anxieties confronted, resolved, and in some cases confirmed—and at this, I think, a bad film is sometimes just as effective as a good one. If it’s hard for me to take The Host as seriously as it takes itself, it’s at least partly because it’s difficult to take the anxieties of adolescent girls as seriously as they do. But this is my failing, not The Host's—there’s probably no other age at which insecurities seem so urgent, so in need of resolution.
I don’t mean to suggest that teenage girls can’t be expected to discern quality, nor that careful value judgments are somehow beyond their reach. But I do mean that The Host’s principal audience might have more pressing matters in mind than a movie’s quality; that they might not feel as if they have the luxury to reflect on whether that one character really needed to say out loud that William Hurt’s crazy-genius uncle was “either crazy or a genius… or maybe both.” I do suspect that the film’s blunt treatment of sexual confusion, its sensitivity towards the excluded and misunderstood (to the extent that a movie whose primary cast is entirely gorgeous and Anglo-Saxon can have much insight on social exclusion), and its starry-eyed idealism will strike a chord. Maybe it will vibrate for a very short time, and then our hypothetical viewer will go on to more important things and forget all about The Host. As, I’m guessing, will just about everyone else. But does that mean that The Host should never have existed, that the chord should never have been struck?