Wednesday 23 July 2014

Review: Under The Skin

Year: 2013 (U.K Theatrical Release 2014)
Director: Johnathan Glazer
Screenplay: Johnathan Glazer, Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson 

Synopsis is here

Under The Skin's IMDB score currently stands at a middling 6.5 on its user ratings. This is understandable. For detractors, the film's lyrical pace will merely frustrate. The nuanced transformation of one of the most famous and attractive woman in the world into a blank alien vessel will be ignored and criticised for its alleged flatness. The films lack of exposition will be viewed has plotless, considering how most screenplays labour themselves with tell-all dialogue.

I understand those criticisms, but I do not agree with them in the slightest. When a film has elusive as this appears on screens, people will always confront those who enjoy it and ask: Why do you like this? Truth is, like a good joke, to deconstruct this film, as I am about to do (poorly), will not give the questioner the satisfying answer they require. After watching Under the Skin, I could only exclaim that it was an "experience". A few days on as I write this, I now consider Under the Skin possibly one of the most incisive science fiction films of the year, if not the last ten. I say this with love and apologies to Gravity (2013), Moon (2008), Children of Men (2005) et all.

Beginning with a grand and opulent 2001 style space sequence and finishing with delicate snowfall, Johnathan Glazer's third feature (9 years after the hauntingly tragic Birth), continues his particular detached observations of human life with Kubrickian precision. The protagonist 'Laura' (Johansson) stalks single men with the removed glare of a terminator. She roams the Scottish Highlands in the kind of white van we tell children to stay away from. Her beauty, however, makes it difficult who the horny males she picks up, who see nothing strange with this particular picture.

Despite the pleasantries that are exchanged, there's no free candy. As the men are seduced, they're are submerged into a thick abyss of liquid. What happens to them is best left to the film to explain, although the Michel Faber novel that the film is loosely based on, explains in clearer detail what happens to these poor souls.

Much has been said about Glazer's use of hidden cameras to film the interactions of Scarlet Johansson with the unwitting Scottish locals. The placement of the cameras often feels similar to the disjointed feel of CCTV cameras not only capturing the action and realistic, awkward conversations, but also slim and strange pockets of uneasy negative space. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin capture seemingly banal moments of humanity with the aloofness of a playful street photographer. The most typical aspects of human life appear distinct and unnatural, with Glazer's visuals become a primer of sorts. It's the only way I can describe how he makes some of the films most unnerving sequences seem understandable.

This doesn't not mean justified. We may perceive much of Laura's behaviour as ugly, but when the "person" you're watching doesn't run on the same notions and emotions as ourselves, we're suddenly propelled into a new dynamic. A new plateau in which vacant gaze of Laura, unlocks parts of us we keep hidden. Johansson's placid performance provides an abyss for which we can throw our own feelings of humanity into. A cold, gray beach has Laura impassively watch a tragedy play out in front of us while playing her own part towards affecting the situation. Later we hear the development of what happened and we comprehend the situation. Laura's lack of reaction disconcerts, reminding us of our basic empathy.

Glazer melds base, predatory elements with this dispassionate, alien tone to overwhelming results. The film lacks the wry humour that litters Faber's book, but extracts the elements in-between the lines to create something bleaker in its explorations. Glazer adds sequences you couldn't imagine in the novel. Alison Wilmore neatly capsules how the male gaze is subverted within the film. What makes the film so provocative is, the more time Laura spends on our planet, she doesn't just become more "human" but she also encounters the predatory instinct that lies within men when they are not controlled. A small yet pivotal scene has Laura hounded by drunk revelers attacking her van in a way that reminds us of why the feminist movement should not be silenced. The film's final third lands us in survival mode with Laura facing what so many fear before blasting off into the metaphysical.

Under the Skin has faint shades of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) along with tones of Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) for good measure. Despite this, Glazer maintains his own touch throughout. Laura may be extra-terrestrial, yet she holds the same narrow view of Sexy Beast's (2000) Don Logan or Birth's Anna. Characters that are so unbelievably sure of their aims and goals that anything that displays a different orientation, shatters their comprehension. Here lies the smartness in Glazer's feature, in which, despite how densely alien this being is, she still remains bound by the trappings of the creatures she preys on. Something I'm sure many of us have felt from time to time. The abyss stares back at us.