Thursday, August 28, 2014

Under The Skin (2014)

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Runtime: 1hr. 48mins.
4/5*
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This is British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer's adaptation of Dutch writer Michel Faber's 2001 science fiction novel of the same name. It's strange, and oddly unsettling, and yet also a brilliant sensory experience. It follows an alien played by Scarlett Johansson who goes unnamed in the film, but the character from the book is named Isserley. She is tasked with driving around Scotland, preying on human men. She lures them back to her lair where they are captured but for unknown purposes.

I'll start by saying that this film is worth seeing, but it isn't one that will appeal to many, at least here in the states. It kind of reminds me of last year's Holy Motors (a movie I liked quite a bit) in that most critics had good things to say about it, it made many top 10 lists, and it was a success internationally, but didn't gain wide appeal here. However, I can see Under The Skin making a lot of top 10 lists, among cinefiles, at the end of the year.

I stumbled upon a conversation thread about this film (forgive me, I forgot where it was), where people were discussing the fact that many films like this are made internationally and frequently shown on TV stations, but rarely do they play on TV in the states, and rarely do they receive wide success. All of this could contribute to the fact that it's considered too weird and "out there" for most people here. Most audiences in the US just aren't accustomed to this type of film. Sometimes we can't keep ourselves from trying to "solve" films, as if they're a math problem or a riddle with a resolute solution.

I won't say that it's hard to follow. I actually found it pretty straight forward, but I did want to include a description, or my interpretation of the film. Obviously, you should watch the film then read that section.

The reason, and rightly so, that critics and international audiences enjoy the film is that it's an immersive, and surreal sensory experience from the visuals to the creepy and striking musical accompaniment. It's more of an experience than most traditional films. It evokes Kubrick. It does what film should do. It makes us think, and allows us to see the world from someone else's perspective.

She begins to question her own moral instincts and explore compassion. She starts out studying human behaviors by watching. There were a handful of scenes made up of shots of random people going about their day completely unaware of the camera. Even some of the men in the film that she speaks to were unaware that they were being filmed until later of course (they signed a waiver to be in the film). All of this grants the film a natural feel. The men she seduces aren't handsome actors, they are everyday people.

There is both female and male nudity, but no sex is seen. Scarlett Johansson takes her clothes off to lure the men into her pitch black lair, the men follow her stripping down thinking they are going to have sex before sinking into floor. We don't know for what purpose these aliens capture these men or why it has to be men. There is much to discuss in terms of gender roles, and weaknesses.

In general there is much to analyze if you'd care to analyze it, but there is enough evident within itself that doesn't need analysis. You can put as much thought or argument into as you want, either way it's nearly impossible to take nothing from it. It's possible to write a long paper about what the story has to say about inner beauty, physical beauty and how those two shape each other. There is much to observe about humanity's love and desire, both physical and emotional, for beauty. It also offers examples of fear and hatred of things we don't understand or things we don't find attractive.

Rarely does Scarlett Johansson give such a multi-layered performance. She is alluring, and makes herself more personable when emulating human behavior as she's witnessed it. Yet much of the rest of the time she features a vacant expression perfect for an alien not accustomed to wearing her human skin. She looks curiously at things, and reacts emotionlessly to many things she encounters.

When she starts to break out on her own and explore humanity there is an intrigue, vulnerability and even fear that takes over. It's a subtle performance and yet hits the nail right on the head for the character she is playing.

It's a film that works on many levels and makes you think. It's hard to discuss these different levels without getting into spoiler territory so I'll stop here... Suffice it to say that this film will be often remembered alongside the films of Kurbick and other significantly disturbing, thought provoking films.

If any of this makes you want to watch this, then watch it, if you haven't yet. I'll offer my interpretation, or reading of the film...
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Spoilers follow:

Here I'll attempt to break down the film, scene by scene in case your memory needs refreshing, and toward the end hopefully it'll all be put into perspective in case you were confused:


We start with strange spherical shapes floating through vast empty space. Scarlett Johansson's character attempts to learn to speak. Next, another alien rides a motorcycle to an undisclosed location. He walks off the road down an embankment and returns carrying the body of a woman.

Next we are in a strange room that appears to be all white and made of light. Scarlett and the body of this woman appear in dark contrast to the light around them. A completely nude Scarlett removes the clothing from the woman and puts it on herself. The woman lies motionless on the floor. She seems alive, but unable to move. As she looks up at Scarlett a tear falls down her cheek. Scarlett shares her first experience with a creature of earth as an ant, that had been on the woman's clothing, crawls around her finger.

Next we see what appears to be lights from a spaceship (mostly obscured by low clouds) take off and fly up and away from the top of a building. Then Scarlett descend the stairs to the ground floor.

The man on the motorcycle is there waiting for her, he has a van for her to drive around in. She goes to a mall and observes human behavior. We see images of women having makeup put on their faces. She tries to emulate this superficial view of beauty by putting makeup on her own face.

After this, she drives around hunting men, attempting to seduce passersby to join her in her van. When she does eventually lure a man in, she takes him to an undisclosed locations.

Once inside her lair (a normal looking house from the outside), the room appears as a dark void, or vast space. She walks away from him stripping as she goes, and he follows eventually sinking into the floor that appears to have turned into black water, though Scarlett seems capable of walking on this water without sinking. This is perhaps the first time we hear her musical theme, or the creepy theme that plays every time she is on the hunt, or doing something sinister.

Next, Scarlett, at the beach, observes people playing around in the sea. She attempts to lure another man into her web, but when they hear a family struggling in the water, the man runs to help them. When the man returns to shore exhausted after failing to save them, she bashes him on the head with a rock and drags him away, all to the creepy musical theme.  Once she's gone, we see the man on the motorcycle come to clean up the scene.

After that we see Scarlett successfully lure a man from a club back to her lair again. As the man sinks into the watery floor we see what happens underneath. The man that just went under sees her previous victim who is still alive under the water. He looks as though he is slowly being eaten away although he is still completely intact. Next we hear a disturbing sound and we see his inner body ripped out from under his skin (although we don't really see the innards or where they go... yet). All that's left of the man is his floating shapeless skin. Then the film cuts to what looks like a conveyor belt taking the bloody sea of innards into an opening in the black void.

In the next scene Scarlett is back in her van, but stuck in traffic. A man selling roses to people as they wait stops by to give her a rose that someone bought for her. She looks at it curiously until she notices that there is blood on it. She sees that the man's hand is cut from handling the thorny stems of the roses.

Eventually we see the motorcycle man standing in a room with Scarlett. They don't say anything, but he looks her up and down and stairs intently into her eyes.

Next, Scarlett falls while walking down the sidewalk. Many people stop to help her up and she seems confused by the kindness and concern shown to her.

After that we see many random shots of everyday people doing everyday things. These shots would only be significant, or worth observing to someone or something studying humanity.

Her next encounter is her most important encounter. She takes in a strange man with a deformed face. She tries to talk to him and seduce him the way she would anyone else. Surely an alien not accustomed to man's normal views of beauty wouldn't understand the struggles of a person with a deformity. He says he doesn't have any friends and has never had a girlfriend. He mistakes her friendliness and nonchalance for genuine interest in him.

Once she has successfully lured him into the black waters of her dark lair, she leaves the room, and before exiting the house altogether she stops and looks at her face in the mirror. She seems fascinated by her own reflection. She notices a fly trapped indoors, and attempting to fly out the closed window, much like the helpless victim she's just lured to his death.

This is when she starts opening herself up to human emotion and compassion. She allows the man with the deformed face to leave. He has no choice but to walk back to his home naked. This decision changes her entire life.

This is also the first time we realize that Scarlett and the man on the motorcycle seem to be somehow psychically linked. He's almost always aware of her actions. He tracks down the deformed man, just as he's returning to his home, and captures him stuffing him in the trunk of a car and driving away, as if to complete the job that Scarlett refused to finish.

From this point on, we start to notice more of Scarlett Johansson's multi-layerd performance. She looks unsure of herself, unaware of what's happening to her and even afraid at times. She goes to a diner and attempts to eat a piece of cake, but spits it out unsuccessfully.

She gets on a bus, and sits alone looking scared and confused. She doesn't seem to know where she's going. A random stranger sits near her and tries to talk to her. While we aren't sure of his intentions, it turns out he's a friendly man willing to take her in and look after her.

While she's with him, she has more opportunity to witness human life. He takes her to a convenience store where he buys food, she watches a comedy show on TV, and even taps her hand in rhythm while listening to music. While alone in her room that night, she looks at her naked body in a mirror discovering her outer, physical beauty.

We cut back to the motorcycle man, who has been joined by a few more motorcycle men who are all clearly trying to track her down. The next day she goes hiking around with the nice man that took her in.  Later that night, they attempt to have sex, but it's clear she doesn't really know what's happening. When he tries to penetrate her she sits up confused, and tries to examine whatever it is that was going on between her legs.

Out of fear she runs away, fleeing into the woods, again unsure of where she's going. While in the woods she encounters a logger who tells her to be careful out there. She continues on her way and finds an abandoned shack that has a sign saying it's available for use by hikers. She enters and lies down, falling asleep. She eventually wakes up to the logger attempting to rape her. She kicks him and fleas back out into the woods. He chases her and tackles her, again attempting to rape her.

As he tares at her clothing he eventually stands up and examines his hands. There seems to be a strange substance on them. He is clearly shocked and fleas the scene. The camera pans to Scarlett and we see that he had actually torn away some of Scarlett's flesh. With her human skin already broken, she pulls away the rest of it revealing her true alien form.

The logger returns dowsing her with gasoline. He sets her on fire and she runs away in pain and fear. Eventually her body falls down dead having been burnt alive. We see the motorcycle man still searching, but there is perhaps a chance that he is aware of her death and he walks away, but we can't be sure whether he will continue searching or if he's abandoning her.

By the end of the film the confusing earlier scenes start to make sense.

The woman that Scarlett takes the place of was another alien who had succumbed to human emotion. Scarlett was brought in to continue her work. This work involves luring human men into her lair where they get processed in some unknown liquid and for unknown purposes.

The scene in which the motorcycle man (the head alien, or her handler) stares her down and examines her looking deep into her eyes, is him trying to discern whether she is starting to show signs of human emotion. Scarlett witnesses human kindness in many various forms, and it seems to deeply affect her. She begins to feel pity for these humans. Her encounter with the deformed man is the turning point for her. She shows compassion by allowing him to escape. The rest of the film is her attempt to try other human things like eating food, enjoying TV shows and music, and even having sex, but none of these experiences work out for her. She is also always on the run, likely knowing the motorcycle man would be coming after her.

The final scene in which the logger attempts to rape her, and the revealing of her true inner identity is pretty powerful. It shows mans longing and desire for superficial beauty to the point of violence. It also shows the fear and hatred of the unknown and strange when he tries to kill her after seeing her true alien form. She has no inner beauty to the man. It also shows Scarlett as someone who doesn't know who she is, someone who isn't sure of the concept of physical and inner beauty, and yet still she's discovering these things all along the way through her different encounters with humans. She isn't sure what her purpose is in life, and fears breaking free of, or challenging, her "designation in life," and her authoritarian figures. It isn't as though everyone has a superficial and dangerous view of beauty, failing to understand inner beauty, in fact a good number of her encounters are with people that aren't necessarily beautiful on the outside, but are on the inside.

Just like Scarlett Johansson's performance, this is a multi-layered film that works on many levels and brings many challenging concepts to mind. It is sure to be analysed for years to come.