Thursday, September 11, 2014

FILM REVIEW: Under the Skin

Our topic for today: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin. How to describe this movie? Imagine a David Cronenberg horror flick. Now, instead of a gross-out factory, make the body horror antiseptic. Sprinkle in liberal elements of 2001, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Liquid Sky, Ghost in the Shell and Species. Heat over a low flame, stir and serve when ready. Something like that. 

It's a brilliant movie. Does it work? I dunno. Still on the fence.

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien (or some non-human biological entity -- for brevity's sake, let's stick with "alien") wearing the false skin of a previously harvested human (complete with blinking eyes). She drives around Scotland in a van asking horny guys to come back with her to her dumpy farmhouse. Seeing as how she's Scarlett Johansson, they say yes. They follow her inside and fail to point out that, like Dr. Who's TARDIS, the inside is bigger than the outside: a vast, featureless black space with a shiny black floor. She strips, backs up and beckons; the hypnotized, bonerized dopes keep walking after her. At some point they melt into the floor and pop into a tank below. Later on, something removes their bones, guts, gizzards and turns them into floating sacks of skin. So it goes. Scarlett's unnamed, low-affect alien is always careful to play a twenty questions game to make sure the dudes are loners who won't be missed. Just to stay on the safe side, a taciturn dude on a motorcycle follows her around, cleaning up any evidentiary loose ends that might point back to her: a baby here, a dude with neurofibromatosis there. This goes on for awhile, until she wanders into a a Scottish forest where a crazed logger tries to rape her and, inadvertently rips a patch of skin off her back, revealing the shiny, seal-like skin of the alien inside. He runs away, horrified, but returns with a can of gasoline and -- alien-hating rapist that he is -- sets her on fire.

Ludicrous in a bare plot summary, but gorgeously filmed. Glazer did a guerrilla filmmaker number here, shooting much of the footage at real locations (with real folks reacting in the background). The dudes reacting to Scarlett are actors, but they feel like real people, as they're all doing improv and staying in the moment. The director stays in the moment, too. It's a slow-paced movie, kids -- Eyes Wide Shut-slow. In that long-winded, New Wavish style, Glazer lingers on scenes long after he makes his point. OK, OK, she's looking in the mirror? Can we move on? Glazer frames all the mundane action with stunning visuals: a 2001-ish section at the start where Scarlett falls to earth, the interiors of the infinitely shiny floor, the skin-grabbing, etc. And, yes, as you've probably gathered, it's an art film.

 Call it The Attack of the Art Film from space. 

Ah, the impulse to make an art film. To jettison the need to "enter late" and end scenes once the point is made. The glorious freedom from pace, plot and narrative constraints. The sweet liberation from the bourgeois need to tell a story, make sense and answer questions like ...

What is the Alien's motive? What does she want? She was evidently sent and has a support system. What do they want? Are they harvesting us for food? (Seems like a lot of trouble.) Are they sampling us for genetic information to modify themselves and take over our planet? Is she (or they) trying to learn to be more human? And what's up with the motorcycle guy? Is he another alien? A minion? What?

No answers. Nada. 

What this movie needs is Fox and Mulder taking a vacation in Scotland. "There's been a string of disappearances," says the Scottish police chief. "Young males, transients ..." Fox and Mulder pursue, Fox shares his theories. But they're not on this case. 

Glazer lets us come up with our own theories. As cute as that sounds, I wish he'd thrown us a bone. 

Or let Fox and Mulder show up.

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