We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
Body-snatching aliens called ‘Souls’ have invaded Earth, forcing the last few unpossessed humans into hiding. When a sweet-natured Soul called Wanderer is inserted into feisty teenager Melanie Stryder, the alien quickly discovers that her presence is anything but welcome. Based on the novel by Twilight writer Stephenie Meyer.
Adapting a first-person novel for the screen is notoriously tricky. No matter how expressive the actor or clever the script, it’s almost impossible to convey the same nuance and depth of emotion that can be evoked by pages and pages of inner monologue. And what if that inner monologue is in fact an inner dialogue? Such is the case in The Host, the 2008 sci-fi novel written by Stephenie ‘Twilight’ Meyer. Here, we have not one, but two heroines both inhabiting the same body (played by Saoirse Ronan in the film) – one alien, one human. Writer-director Andrew Niccol is well-used to high-concept stuff, having come up with The Truman Show and Gattaca among other screenplays. But here the unwieldiness of the source material gets the better of him, despite a more than capable lead actress.
Wanderer (Wanda for short) is a Soul. She has lived on eight different planets inhabiting eight very different bodies. But none of her past lives could have prepared her for the violent resistance she encounters from the human host on her new planet, Earth. While most hosts vanish into oblivion the moment a Soul is inserted, this particular host – a headstrong young woman called Melanie Stryder – refuses to go away, vowing to return to her boyfriend Jared (Max ‘Son-of-Jeremy’ Irons) and younger brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury). Avoiding Wanderer’s ‘Seeker’ – a sort-of Soul version of the police, played by Diane Kruger – Wanderer and Melanie set off into the desert in search of Melanie’s family and any other vestiges of humanity.
As a sci-fi concept, it’s pretty neat. How often do you get to sympathise with the invaders in the alien invasion scenario? And on paper, it works a treat. The book’s strongest passages involve the mental battles, compromises and eventual collaboration between Melanie and Wanda. You’re left unable to choose whose side you’re on. In the film, however, it’s difficult to root for either one of them. Wanda spends the majority of the film hardly speaking, while Melanie is nothing but an echoey voiceover for almost the entire movie, coming across more as a stroppy teenager who’s been grounded by her parents rather than someone having their fundamental right to liberty infringed by an alien race.
The inevitable love triangle or, in this case, love quadrangle that evolves between Wanda, Melanie, Jared and another human survivor called Ian (Jake Abel), is unsurprising given the story emerged from the same pen that created Bella Swan and her superhuman admirers. Though this is probably the bit of the plot that will appeal most to Twilight fans, it also supplants some of the story’s more intriguing, metaphysical elements. “If our memories are still alive, are we?” asks Melanie’s eccentric Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). Sadly, we never get much chance to reflect on this as Wanda and Melanie are too busy bickering over whether or not they should be allowed to kiss each other’s boyfriends.
Though the source story is strong, and Saoirse Ronan one of the only actresses of her generation who stood even half a chance of nailing the dual-heroine role, the central premise of The Host is fundamentally unfilmable and, hence, probably shouldn’t have been filmed.
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