Sunday, 30 March 2014

Under The Skin (2013, UK/US)

Fourth Wall rating: 7/10

"Do you like living alone?"

Jonathan Glazer lets his visuals do the talking in a terse and hyper-stylised treatise on loneliness, "the other" and every young man's longing to copulate with Scarlet Johansson.

Director: Jonathan Glazer | WritersWalter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer for screenplay + based on "Under the Skin" by Michel Faber Actors: Scarlett Johansson et al | Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger | Studio Film4, BFI, Silver Reel ProducersJames Wilson & Nick Wechsler

One sentence description: Scarlett Johansson drives around Scotland in a van.
One (long) sentence review: Imagine if Apple Inc. made a toaster, and then think of the alien-movie version of this. 
Watch it if… You like thinking about movies on your own rather than being told what to think. 
Don’t watch it if… You're squeamish or like movies with a lot of dialogue. 
Best thing about the film… Apart from Johansson, the gloop.
If you’re looking for something that will stir you out of bored neutrality or “meh”, perhaps on an innocuous sunny afternoon or a wet and windy night in Stoke, then this is it. You’ll be, by turns, unsettled, horrified and maybe even laugh a little, thanks to the latest offering by Jon Glazer. Under The Skin is a visually sexified overture in the alien-on-Earth oeuvre, like if “The Man Who Fell to Earth” had a (more) female version of David Bowie and didn’t insist on philosophising verbally about the human condition every 10 minutes.

So, the opening scene. We are treated to a highly zoomed-in and ambiguous movement of spheres, showing what is probably the ‘manufacturing’ of a human eye but could also be hot chocolate overflowing in a cup. We also hear SJ trying out some sounds, presumably as practice at making human sounds. Soon enough, we see SJ standing over a (seemingly dead) woman’s body, taking her clothes. The background and the floor are completely white, as though in one of those virtual reality simulations in Star Trek. Look carefully at the woman lying on the floor and she’s still breathing. Suddenly, a solitary tear runs down her cheek. The woman is probably paralysed. SJ barely bats an eyelid. Outside, a helmeted motorcycle rider takes the body away, with the sky overcast and the threat of rain looming. 

What follows is about 100mins of an oddly-detached odyssey following Scarlett Johansson dutifully carrying out some ‘otherwordly’ duties and then, when she goes off the grid, being hunted down by her ‘handler’. 

There are four key elements to this film – firstly, the candid camera work. Most of SJs’ anodyne conversations in the van are unscripted and recorded by hidden camera. This relied on people not recognising SJ (although this seems unusual in the Twitter & Facebook era) and the resulting dialogue comes off quite naturalistically. This only serves to make the film more atmospheric and unsettling, like it could happen on any British high street.
Secondly, there is Scarlett Johansson herself – her blank facial expressions and general behaviour become more animated as she learns more about this world, which culminates in her attempting to have sex with a kindly stranger. Sadly, she makes an unpleasant discovery about the, er, topology of her human body.
Thirdly, Scotland is something of a star in this film also – the tremendous views of the Highlands combined with the concrete desolation of Glasgow. The cold climate seems to oddly echo the coldness of the film itself.

Finally, there is the actual ‘alien’ subplot – skip the paragraph below to avoid a spoiler.

The whole harvesting of human remains is superbly shot, from the moment the men step into a strange, all-black room (this isn’t enough to deter their lasciviousness), to what happens below the surface (scary) to how the men’s insides are gobbled up by some human-grinder (almost comically sci-fi). It’s notable that given the requirement to find reasonably healthy men who won’t be missed by society, the alien enterprise’s plans move to Glasgow.

As you can see from the cast list, this is a highly minimal film in which SJ appears in almost every shot. She holds her own, although her performance is perhaps a little too straight-faced. She rarely shows any frustration or delight, which doesn’t seem realistic. However, part of the delight of this film is watching a Hollywood superstar roam around Glasgow town centre and the A82.

Many reviewers, most notably the grand don of movies Mark Kermode, have described this film as “out there”. However, the film does not really introduce any new motifs, from the alien who begins to understand what it is to be a human (The Man Who Fell to Earth), harvesting of humans (Daybreakers, Signs, almost every vampire movie), the themes of loneliness, men’s lust leading them to danger and so on. No, instead, the new elements include a woman as the alien and the cold-blooded detachment with which this film is made.
A classic example of this is the scene with the child on the beach. Although no physical harm comes to the toddler, he is quite nonchalantly left screaming in distress on the beach in the middle of nowhere, by both SJ’s character and her ‘handler’. Oddly, this moment was considerably more distressing than the demise of the horny men who follow SJ into her lair.

On another note, this film also tries to push a message - about skins. This is particularly salient in the penultimate shot of the film, but also with the man with the 'deformed' face (this isn’t CGI - the actor, Adam Pearson, has Neurofibromatosis, which leads to large tumours forming on parts of the body) admits that he’s never touched a woman before, despite being in his late twenties. SJ picks him up as somebody who won’t be missed in society, all the while forming a bond with him and his loneliness. We see how all these young men jump at the chance to go back to SJ's place, blinded by the way she looks and not stopping once to think (a) why such a beautiful woman would be driving around a van looking for guys to bring home and (b) why would ask so many questions about whether they live alone and have any friends or family nearby.

Ultimately, Under The Skin is not a complicated film, even after SJ's character goes from being the hunter to the hunted. The film's strengths lie in its simplicity - Under The Skin is visually striking and will leave you ruminating for a while afterwards. The sparse dialogue and emptiness of plot make it an otherworldly experience rather than a ‘story’, although for this reviewer, this also means that it is hard to rate higher than 8/10. It took almost a decade for Jonathan Glazer to distil the original novel into this film (which seems a bit long for a film with so little dialogue), but here’s hoping that it doesn’t take him quite so long to make his next film. AM

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