Thursday, July 3, 2014
Blogorium Review: Under the Skin
At the outset, I'm going to warn you that the best way to watch Under the Skin is to know as little about the film as possible. The film's trailers are deliberately vague precisely because Under the Skin is meant to be experienced rather than explained. By necessity, in order to review it at all, I'm going to have to be more specific about the narrative (such as it is) than you might want to know about going in. From here on out, consider everything covered to fall under MILD SPOILERS.
I've waited a long time for a new Jonathan Glazer movie: after Sexy Beast in 2000, he took four years to follow-up with Birth, and ten years later, we have his third film. I hope this is not indicative of a Donna Tartt-esque pattern of project gestation time, but if Under the Skin is any indication, the wait may be worth it. Not too long ago, I mentioned that Spider Baby might be the strangest film I've seen in a long time, precisely because of how matter-of-factly it treats the bizarre Merrye family. Under the Skin is not necessarily "strange," but it has its share of haunting, surreal imagery that still floats in and out of my head. The trailer has been described as "Lynch-ian," and the movie lives up to that promise (it reminded me of parts of Eraserhead more than once), but I want to clear up a certain misconception about what the term "Lynch-ian" means before we go any further. It's relevant to Under the Skin, which is why I'm including it in this review.
There is an assumption, mostly by people who know David Lynch third hand or by a dissociative reputation, that "Lynch-ian" just means "weird." They believe that his films are weird for weird's sake, that his editing techniques and use of juxtaposition serve no real purpose, and that Lynch is just interested in being as strange as possible for no other reason than he can be. If that seems far fetched a claim, watch something like "David Lynch's Return of the Jedi" and tell me that's not exactly how the creator of that video presents the film as "re-envisioned" by the director. In truth, David Lynch's Return of the Jedi would probably be more like David Lynch's Dune, which may or may not be a good thing.
Are Lynch's films abstract at times? Oh yes. Do they rely on seemingly random imagery presented without context? I wouldn't argue that's the case at times. Is it, at times, difficult to suss out what the intent of this imagery is? Of course. Lynch doesn't help by dodging questions about meaning, or by attributing it to a byproduct of Transcendental Meditation, but the amount of time and effort he puts into seemingly "random" and "weird" imagery points to means to an end, even if we aren't sure what the ends are. Maybe he isn't either. Maybe he is, and he's just playing coy. At any rate, weird for weird's sake is either a total misunderstanding or a cynical dismissal of what makes something "Lynch-ian."
At bare minimum, we know this from the beginning of the film: aliens are on Earth, and they're using our skin to infiltrate and conduct experiments. Well, maybe the second part. They're definitely using Scarlett Johansson's character (unlisted in the credits - most of the characters say their names, but I'll go with Glazer's preference) as a decoy to draw in men, take them "home," and sink them into a black oil-like substance. We get one glimpse of what happens after that, and given the reveal at the end, I have a pretty good idea what we're seeing. She has a mission to collect men who are single, who have no families or close friends, and who won't be missed. When she's found the perfect specimen and lured him into her "trap," a motorcycle riding "clean up man" takes care of the loose ends.
Glazer does an interesting about face, particularly considering the amount of nudity from Johansson in the film I wasn't expecting. The"male gaze" is on display near the very beginning - when Johansson either takes over for the last "agent" or simply removes the clothes of a dead woman - slowly gives way to another sort of gaze. I hesitate to call it "feminine" because she's clearly not playing a human, and it implies that the male objectification operates in the exact same way that the "male gaze" does. It's more of an "alien gaze," although her entire purpose is to draw men in using their "male gaze" - critical in drawing them to follow her into the Black Room and by extension, their doom.
As the film goes on, it becomes clearer that the aliens, or at least Johansson, don't really understand humanity past a utilitarian purpose. Beyond the parameters of her mission, she has no idea how to react to people, and becomes visibly uncomfortable when included in a group of women heading to a club. Unable to leave the building, she becomes frantic, and only settles down when she accidentally meets her "target." At other points, she seems confused about tripping on a sidewalk, attempting to eat food, and the sight of blood. The meaning of that scene, in particular, isn't clear until the very end of the film, when the title finally makes sense.
Under the Skin has a few genuinely disturbing moments resulting from the alien "disconnect" from emotions. One in particular is still unnerving: while chatting up a potential victim, the vacationing swimmer notices a family being pulled into the rough tidal waters. He tries to save them, and, failing that, at least bring the husband back to shore. He brings him back, but is too winded to stop the man from swimming back out to his doom. Johansson stands there, dispassionately observing the tragedy, and while the tourist is struggling to stand, she knocks him out with a rock. As she drags him back to her van, mixed in with the roar of the ocean are the screams of the family's toddler, sitting by himself a few yards away. Johansson never acknowledges the child - he's not essential to the mission, and when the cyclist turns up later to remove the evidence, he also leaves the crying child. The last time we see the toddler is as the light is fading and the tide advances. It's a rather bleak view of humanity's worth from the eyes of outsiders.
Her first moment of what could be called "pity" involves a man with severe facial deformities, although I'm still not exactly sure what the aftermath of that sequence suggests. Johansson lures him in, as she has with every other man in the coastal region of Scotland they've set up shop, but there's a hiccup. I think. I'm not sure, but it's the first and only time we see one of the aliens until the end of the film, and the cross-fading (reminiscent of the beginning of Eraserhead) suggests its communicating with Johansson. She leaves and is startled by the mirror at the bottom of the stairs, presumably noticing "herself" for the first time. When she goes outside, he's no longer ensnared, but is standing outside of her flat, naked. As he walks through the brush to get home, the motorcycle alien is dispatched and they meet, to an unhappy end. Was her selection rejected by the higher-ups because of his face? Did she have a moment of doubt and free him? It's up to interpretation, but clearly the situation required a hasty clean-up.
That scene is the catalyst for the last section of Under the Skin, which anybody who has seen a movie about aliens pretending to be human will have some idea what follows. It's the only point where I began to question exactly where Glazer was going with the film (mostly when she's in the woods), although the role reversal between Johansson and the logger quickly became apparent. The use of a specific music cue makes it clear, but that, in and of itself, is a setup for a bigger misdirect. In the final moments of the film, at least one mystery makes much more sense (hint: it involves what the title specifically means) and explains the sudden ending to her fascination with actual sexuality - rather than the temptation of it as a means to their ends. Despite slight misgivings, I think the final moments make Under the Skin more potent and illuminate some mysteries and deepen others.
If you take to Under the Skin - and some may not - it's almost certain it won't be a "one time" movie. I'm already looking forward to watching it again, to pick up on additional clues that point towards the end of the film, as well as to pick apart the symbolic images that make up the pre-title sequence. After more people have seen it (and I hope, if you read this far, you at least saw it beforehand), this review might merit revisiting and a more openly SPOILER-friendly discussion. But, for now, I'm going to avoid getting to specific, and allow audiences to discover Under the Skin for themselves. It's a striking film, visually, and one open to interpretation. "Lynch-ian" in the best sense, or is it "Glazer-ian"?