Scarlett Johansson is a Monster: Under the Skin

Feel free to eavesdrop as I argue with myself upon exiting the theater after seeing Jonathan Glazer’s* troubling new sci-fi horror film Under the Skin. But it’s a spoiler-ish conversation…

Wow. That was pretty amazing.

You think so?

Well, yeah! It’s a Jonathan Glazer film. Sexy Beast, Birth… they didn’t make big splashes at the box office, but now they’re two highly regarded films of the “Oughts” and he’s being compared to Kubrick.

And he lives up to that comparison here. Right off the bat I’m thinking about—

You’re thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Me too. I’m thinking about that, and I’m thinking about THX 1138. Problem is, I spent 180 minutes thinking about other movies.

But does he live up to that comparison by having real vision? Or does he make the viewer too detached, too self-conscious with Kubrick-ian affectations?

Don’t get me wrong: I went into this with my hopes high. I think Birth is a near-masterpiece. But this? I thought it started with a strong idea, and then, instead of developing the idea, it just stayed… an idea.

How can you say that it? It’s full of ideas. The abstract opening. The way the alien puts on human beings like suits. The way the alien baits the hook to lure victims. What happens to the humans who take the bait.

Hold it right there. Those may be ideas, but they’re old, tired ideas. Aliens in Human Suits are the stuff of B-movies going back so, so far into movie history. As a narrative, the film doesn’t offer much that’s more interesting than a straightforward alien-predator narrative. When you boil these 108 minutes down, you’ve got a very basic plot that’s about as ambitious as, oh… Species.

Seriously, how can you say that? You’re always going on about how artists should show and not tell. This film is so powerfully restrained, it’s almost a silent film! I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

And by its silences, the alien kindles our interest, drawing us in to understand just what kind of “other” we’re dealing with here. 

Okay, sure: Restraint, silence, long patient shots… those are rare and remarkable virtues of the film. I’m very impressed at how the movie avoids a lot of pitfalls and avoids the adrenalin-junkie tactics of most sci-fi. It has the trappings of a movie made for very intelligent, attentive moviegoers. It has the look of poetic cinema. But is it really poetic? Or is it just poem-like?

I don’t find much to speak of beyond the film’s cinematically sophisticated surfaces — which is interesting, considering that the film’s primary subject is a “package” with a sort of void inside, a creature of pure appetite. Maybe I feel like one of the alien’s victims here — the film teased me with a promise of meaning and revelation, but as I sought to understand it, it just backed away, refusing to ever offer anything in exchange for my questions. We can choose to struggle anyway, and drown, or we can say, “Come on, really?” and walk away.

There’s some magnificent, troubling imagery in this film, but a bunch of striking images isn’t enough. The images need to be in dialogue with one another. We need to start picking up poetic associations that invite us to construct what this is really all about. I really don’t think that this is more than the sum of its parts. Granted, this is a first impression, but… I got nuthin’.

How about you?

Well, for one thing, it’s about the objectification of women. The alien, putting on the form of a woman, serves to expose the beastliness of the typical male. Just watch a few commercials, and you’ll see how perversely the world exploits the female body, encouraging the distortion of sexual appetites and ensuring the abuse of, and the dehumanization of, women. So many men care only about seizing another body as a thing to possess and use. So is the alien truly the predator, or is this a sort of extra-terrestrial version of “To Catch a Predator”?

The alien seems unaware that there’s anything more to humanity than carnal appetite. It’s when the alien encounters something more complicated “under the skin” that it is knocked off track, that it begins to have some new kind of awakening. And isn’t it intriguing that the awakening of conscience does not come about apart from skin, but because of it? 

Infatuation, carnal desire, and the consequences of lust… those are legitimate themes, but they’re established early and with disappointing simplicity. I could find myself really excited about a movie that really explores these themes. Many have. But I found myself quickly bored once it established the themes. It didn’t seem to go much deeper than saying “Men are monsters, horny and stupid. Look at how awful they are.” I suppose it might be also saying “Women, by allowing yourself to be objectified, you’re ensuring that love never comes into the picture.” But again, I got to those ideas during the first seduction scene.

From that point on, the most predictable thing to do is ask, “Hey, what if the predator started to develop a conscience?” Enter the pity-inspiring social outcast, and the chivalrous guy who cares about romance.

Compare this to Blade Runner, and Blade Runner looks even more like a literary and cinematic masterpiece. And last year’s Leviathan, which has no more plot than “The boat goes out, the men catch fish, the fish are cut up, and stuff is thrown back into the sea” … even that presented images in a poetic way that kept my brain busy throughout.

What would you have liked to see happen?

I don’t know, I can think of all kinds of possibilities.

The film starts out like a sort of anti-Wings of Desire. This time, a demon instead of an angel follows humanity around, coaxing them toward destruction instead of redemption. Instead of delighting in curiosity and compassion, she plunges them into her cosmic vat of oil and enbalms them, or something. Until one day when she doesn’t. One day, pondering humanity, and stumbling on to a beautiful soul (or two), the demon decides to join them rather than eat them.

That premise could have taken us to a lot of interesting places. But I think Glazer was too preoccupied with his bait-and-devour scenario. So many stretches of this film just drag.

But Johansson’s amazing in this role. I thought she made it interesting. Her expressions here aren’t so different from those we saw in Lost in Translation: She’s an alien wherever she goes, looking on with a mix of bewilderment and bemusement.

And she’s allowed to play the part of a real human body suit, instead of a supermodel body suit. She’s beautiful, but she looks like a flesh and blood human being instead of, you know… the Avengers’ Black Widow. 

Well, that’s also true. Another aspect of the film that I can admire. But the fact remains that it only drew me in to a suspension of disbelief for one chapter, and that was the chapter when she gives a ride to that sad, lonely, misshapen fellow. In a film that works so hard to cultivate a sense of the alien, it was a genuine human being with a heart that I found to be the only persuasive, engaging presence.

You’re fond of quoting Ebert: “A movie is not about what it is about, it’s about how it is about it.” I found the how — especially Daniel Landin’s cinematography — hypnotic and strange.

It was visually hypnotic and strange. But was it just strange? Or were the images composed in ways that enhanced the meaning of the film?

You’re also fond of saying that I should see movies twice, and my experience might change entirely.

True. This argument is running long, but that probably means I should get outside of my own head, read other perspectives on the film, and then see it again sometime. If I do, and I start to feel differently about the film, let’s have a Round Two. But I’ll need to tap into something more than I did on the first viewing. Life’s too short for me to invest time in art that gives me little more than “Well, wow… that was trippy.”

*Correction: In the first version of this review, I erroneously called the director “Brian Glazer” instead of “Jonathan Glazer” … probably because the search engine of my brain landed on the similar name “Brian Grazer,” the TV producer, and thought it had found what it was looking for. How embarrassing.

 

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