Friday, July 4, 2014

The Cinema File #365: "Under The Skin" Review


There is a kind of director for whom the screenwriting process is completely unnecessary, if not a hindrance to their singular vision. Usually these are amateurs with delusions of grandeur, but occasionally they rise to prominence, the most obvious example being that magnet for unearned praise Terrence Malick, who doesn’t just change scripts as all directors do, but never bothers to commission them, let alone read them. For these hacks disguised as auteurs, film is not a medium for storytelling, but rather moments and metaphor, evocative imagery cobbled together in editing until it barely resembles a movie if only by an appropriate running time (or more often, an inappropriately longer one). In many ways, the new indie sci-fi thriller Under The Skin feels like one of these movies, except for the part where its actually good.


Under The Skin follows a mysterious taciturn alien operating on Earth in human form, seducing men to their deaths on a slow and often frustrating journey of self-discovery. If that description sounds somewhat strange, its only because the movie itself is so deliberately impenetrable, forcing you to put the pieces together yourself without any but the most necessary exposition to guide you. There are maybe twenty lines in the entire film, most of them part of casual improvised conversations of little importance, while much more of the narrative is explored through its silent, meditative lead character. In terms of its slow, dreamlike pacing and ever so slight approach to characterization, the closest comparison I can draw from is, regrettably, last year’s Only God Forgives, and I never thought I would ever see a movie that reminded me so much of that travesty that I could actually say I enjoyed this much.


I do not want to spoil it, but I need to mention that this film contains within it one of the most shocking and effectively terrifying sequences that you are likely to see all year. I won’t get too specific, because you really need to see it for yourself, but its basically the moment where we finally see just what the aliens are doing to the humans they capture, and its done through the point of view of a victim seeing what is happening to the last victim, and by extension what will soon be happening to him. Like most of the movie, its done without dialogue or even much movement, and its so sudden and gut wrenching that it justifies the ticket price on its own. Its one of only three significant scenes that showcase the aliens as they are when not among the humans, the first opening the film and introducing the main character, and the last closing the film and showing her in her true form, and the film as a whole seems built around these three moments, with the rest of the movie as its connective tissue.


The key factor, which is to say that thing Under The Skin has which Only God Forgives and other films like it lack, is substance. This movie isn't just a series of well shot moments in search of a plot. It doesn't try to conceal emptiness with elusive mystery, hoping that your intrigue in figuring out its meaning will compel you to fill in the gaps where an actual script should be. Under The Skin isn’t faking the storytelling process even if it uses many of the styles and techniques used by those who often need to, and in doing so, it thoroughly beats the Malicks and Nicolas Winding Refns of the world at their own game, using imagery and metaphor as a focus rather than a crutch. You understand what this woman, or rather this thing pretending to be a woman, is going through, without her saying a word, and those powerful moments actually mean something, because you’ve been given a reason to care about what’s going on beyond everything looking really pretty.


Speaking of looking pretty, I imagine most people will go into this movie for one incredibly shallow reason, specifically that it represents the first nude scene for its star Scarlett Johansson, which is only kind of sad until you find out how disappointed they will all be by how brief those moments actually are. Obviously, Johannson’s sexuality is central to the character, being an alien seductress, but its presented in such a way that almost divorces her from it, playing off the mysterious allure of Maxim’s sexiest of whatever year and adding a different, more cold and threatening dimension to it that is anything but titillating. In a way, her character is the polar opposite of her last, and until now best performance in last year’s Her, a body without a voice, using men without love, only to find a deeper connection to humanity through her artificial likeness to it. Its yet another performance from this actress that makes me wonder why she still bothers putting on the black leather for her one note role in the Marvel-verse, when she can do so much better.


Under The Skin is one of those little independent movies that usually comes and goes without much fanfare, unlikely to score much attention in between the annual slate of massive big budget blockbusters, and its one of the few cases where that’s really a shame. Perhaps the draw of Johannson naked, if its enough to get people to give the film a chance, is as much a blessing as it is a disgusting statement about what it takes to get people to see good movies. Then again, I happen to know from a friend who has yet to see the film that the screenshots are already freely available online, so maybe we’re all just bastards. But you should check it out anyway, even if all you want to see is those screenshots moving around a bit, because chances are if you’re patient and open minded enough to tolerate its tone and pacing, you’ll find a lot more to love about it than just boobs. The boobs are nice of course, but its really the substance of them…I mean the movie...that matters. Damn it.
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