Sunday, June 1, 2014
Review: UNDER THE SKIN
Plot: Two aliens arrive on earth to harvest humans. One supervises from a motorbike and the other lures men on the streets from a van, asking directions and data mining chit chat before offering the eligible a lift. The luring alien begins to identify with the guise she has adopted and splinters from the mission and begins one of her own to assimilate with the locals.
Physicality is an anchor in this almost entirely cold film. Without it being so deliberate there would be too much threat to the integrity of this almost entirely fragile film. The reason the alien so easily lures the men into the van and then to a bizarre fate is that it's wearing a Scarlett Johanson skin. This was assumed along with clothing from the first victim we see.
But while sexually irresistible Johanson is able to carry the dead eyed blank of her character's natural state through moments where she presents the human traits absorbed earlier it is impossible to feel anything but chilled to hear her laugh and flirt knowing she is really the alien. It's desirable (well ... we want our beautiful movie star back) but intentionally barred from us until the film on its own terms provides a way as the alien begins to understand the power of her guise, her skin.
This creates an unnerving companionship with Her in which the same movie star was used to similar effect. In that film it was impossible to imagine anyone but the A-List beauty talking, giving everyone in the cinema an instant key into the protagonist's growing romantic obsession with the voice. It was a trick but I bet no one minded it (I didn't). Here we are saved from too much alienation (boom boom) because we feel familiar with the visage. The same thing was done in the 70s when Nicholas Roeg cast David Bowie as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The sight of the naked movie-star-skinned alien gazing at herself in a mirror makes us wonder how we would feel to look upon ourselves in such perfection. It is enough for the being under the skin to want to be the one who first possessed it. This is the journey that engages us emotionally, after we have seen such confronting coldness, and your acceptance of this film will depend on how much you engage with that journey.
This isn't easy until that moment as we are given such an estranging world to move through. The harvesting process is by turns beautiful and wrenching as we see more than once the victim follow the woman across a mirror finish floor so enthralled by her that he fails to notice or mind that he is sinking into it. That's in the trailer. The other parts I'll leave you to discover when you buy a ticket but I will say that the state the victims find themselves in is masterfully designed, being both liquid and breathable. The sight of the alien walking back over the surface as seen from many metres below has an eerie beauty as her form grows more distant by the second. I can recall no scene from any other film like this one. It strikes me as something that formed wordlessly in the imagination and was translated image by image from that daydream directly and has less the quality of genre cinema (sci fi in this case) than the striking visions of Matthew Barney. And there's more where it came from.
Another moment when the supervisor is closely circling the female alien she is completely inert but his expression is stern. If there were any dialogue to this scene it would be punitive. An act of mercy shown to a would-be victim follows one of confronting detachment in the preceding sequence (and it's hard to revisit in memory). It is the mercy that compels her to leave the mission. And so her self image, borrowed or not, swells to life. A montage of women on the streets at first suggests that the alien is moving on to female targets but is more, with the process of subsequent scenes, like the stirrings of curiosity about them and her own guise, like a longing identification.
I wonder if the investment in the visual as primary carriage of meaning here has allowed Glazer better access to the sui generis movies he has sought to make. At first, the blend of Kubrickian perfection with an increasing earthiness (boom boom redux) feels insubstantial but this film haunts, tenaciously, and won't let you go until you've put more thought into it. Up to you.