Comfortable and Furious

Under the Skin (2013)

While accurate, to dismiss Jonathan Glazer’s unorthodox alien sci-fi as enigmatic is a simplistic exercise in reductionism, but it is also the easiest to do. Though tangential, comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey were inevitable, they would prove only insofar as creative intent. What Kubrick sought to ask would ultimately eclipse what his epic attempted to answer. Glazer’s film toys with similar obscurities, except two arguments could be made for and against his effort adapting Under the Skin to the screen. Stacked against the Starchild’s trajectory, for one, said ambiguity is back-loaded. Put another way, and notwithstanding source material, Scarlett Johansson’s alien has no backstory to glean any moral or emotional reference from. And, two, the very same obtusity could be misconstrued here as a deliberate narrative cop-out, and it was largely behind the film’s lack of mainstream appeal. It was a colossal commercial failure, although that is another topic. But just as easily this charge could be overlooked as another among the plethora of misinterpreted reactions the film has spawned, not in the least because the similarities to Kubrick’s Space Odyssey are, um, (rising Valley girl tone) tangential? The two films are narrative contrasts to even remotely qualify as kin.

Under the Skin is defined by several powerful images, its stark use of color, and an acclaimed musical score. The latter I was not too keen on and that is purely a matter of taste. But it was no doubt effective in relaying that much of Glazer’s vision of the novel, a novel he hasn’t read. Not that that has stopped him from concocting an opening sequence blending all these cinematic techniques in a resounding announcement of the style to follow. And were it not for these stirring characteristics and a script lean on dialogue, we would indeed be talking about a minimalist picture as it forgoes every semblance of exposition for an elemental design. In short, it is about a mysterious woman who seduces men to an empty room to their death, however, as an alien masquerading as a human. Not as layered as vampires pretending to be humans pretending to be vampires, but still meta-sapien. Here, it is form rather than motives which draw engagement for longer than an ephemeral observation. As the film opens, the birth of this nameless extraterrestrial is rendered in montage against a cacophony of incomprehensible frenzy. A jarring arrangement of frenetic strings and violins used as a leitmotif at various points. The choice of acoustic instruments to resemble corrosive industrial noise lends a soulless, almost mechanical quality to this lifeforms conception as what first appears to resemble a solid, thick black liquid rising in a cylindrical receptacle viewed overhead ends in the segments most memorable shot. Evidently, it is the formation of alien’s human iris and is very evocative of the red light representing HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Glazer would intersperse similar images and aural cues in other moments all of which I will not claim to understand the significance of, but in a film that operates almost entirely on imagery, every frame counts. Likewise for sound; for every word unsaid every note could hold a clue. As the crescendo of strings ramps up, words and the alphabet are stuttered into perfection confirming the gibberish to be the birth of the alien’s human likeness taking its speech orientation crash course. Though named only in the credits, it goes by Laura, another deviation from the source.

Such are the peculiar machinations of the film that when we follow a motorcyclist through the rural Scottish hills, stopping just outside the city to pick an unconscious woman from the nearby shrub to throw into a van, a break from continuity occurs. The vehicle’s now vast, sterile white interior either defies physical reality or we are transported somewhere else altogether for this scene. The aliens mothership orbiting earth just above alludes to one possibility while the surrealist alternative is plausible all the same. Laura is now modeled into the shape of a human (Johansson), as a Brit, and before setting off, she stands over the murdered woman, strips off her clothing, dons them then observes an ant on her finger. Driving a van, she is then dispatched to lure men into a dark, abstract den similar to the scene just described; an expanse of sleek black with no discernible light source, and where dimensions know no distinct boundaries. And perhaps out of sheer convenience, or a logistical necessity, the men are mostly accidental hitchhikers; unassuming rubes met on the street and casually offered a lift following the coy and timeless diversion of asking for directions. Think Bang Bus with swapped genitalia relative to where the steering wheel is. The victims are played by non-professionals unaware of Glazer’s ploy of casting them in unscripted scenes Johansson truly shines in. But her alien seductress would also show craft in picking up a companion-cum-target who approaches it for a change at a club. The pick-up method is typical of aggressors, i.e. males of the stalker mold, while retaining the feminine hallmark of taking and dishing flirtatious quips seamlessly.

The second set of images, shot with cabin and dash cams, recall hidden camera shows crossed with Taxicab Confessions. Instead the conversations are probing, dominated by the driver, and seriously hint at serial killer tropes. Once ensnared the men are led to the dark room where (and here’s a Kubrick moment) they’re sapped of their precious bodily fluids. Their death march is played out to the same hypnotic beat, imbuing a steamy, ritualistic air to their final folly. Eager and undressed, they trot toward the woman to the rhythm of a steely, discordant screech. In subsequent reiterations shell appear in less and less clothing until naked… (wank, wank, wank, plop, wakes up hours later with a crusty dick) but always retreating while facing her prey, when all of a sudden they sink into the floor. Suspended between life and death in a pool of transparent preservative, they float like sausage casings or used rubbers in a pool, devoid of entrails and sinew. To our subjective understanding, the choice of black and white spaces coincides with peril to the humans who enter them alongside Laura. The visual representation of the rooms differs along function and purpose. But with white van featured only once, this allots its frequent opposite more pertinent weight in unearthing the film’s more evasive ideas. Like the vans white, black is established as a familiar artifact on the outside, an abandoned house. It is on the inside that another frame is applied. A dimensional singularity, or a parallel plane existing only in Laura’s head? As a disorienting infinity that transcends our perception of physical, visible space, is the scene resemblant of how sex is experienced by the alien species? Or is it merely the manifestation of its current thoughts? A recollection of past ones? The association of others flooding its mind now?

Like these spatial oddities, what also grants the film an experimental edge though it is far from an experimental film considering it is congruent with most cinematic conventions are things like the lack of verbal interaction among the extraterrestrials. Laura speaks with her targets only, and only within the boundaries of her assignment. She is never seen verbally communicating with her own. Again, the film relies on a considered opaque vibe and what is left is less than a coherent plot, rather a mix of emoted looks and listless action driving, sightseeing, exploration, small talk. The script is basically the latter. Questions about the men’s marital status, place of residence etc., are meant to be interpreted differently by all parties. For the victims, it is the prelude to innuendo and the sign of a lucky lay. For viewers, could it be that Laura is assessing the risk of kidnapping a man with family ties, or is she actively shielding against emotional entanglement? There are no limits to the film’s polysemy but one in particular coincides with the emergence of a tonal shift; a critical juncture that sees Laura inexplicably abandoning the vehicle and her mission. She would go mute for the remainder of the story as she explores on foot the pastoral sprawl beyond the city. The quaint locale stands in contrast to the menacing bustle of the burg. And this highlights Under the Skins dichotomy and paradoxical philosophy. In an environment where her crimes could never go unnoticed is where a threat is posed to her predatory activities. Ironic for an intimate milieu. Conversely, she enjoys a great deal of safety from the anonymity granted by a bigger town, an intrinsically hostile setting by way of a greater degree of social apathy, and higher crime rates. Bewildered and catatonic, she stops at a restaurant and sits at a table observing diners with a newfound childlike innocence and curiosity. She orders a mousse cake but coughs it out, alarmed by the absence or presence of an oral cavity (the vaginal counterpart would undergo an inspection of its own next). The twist is possibly triggered by encountering another insect while seeing her own reflection in a mirror. And yet earlier Laura exposes her true form in a sudden cut.The twist could also be attributed to a disfigured hitchhiker who, through no willful act, intrigued her into setting free. And for that, the mission overseer is shown tele-kinetically reprimanding Johansson’s character, although it is unclear yet again whom she has revealed herself to. And why does it have tits?

Gone now are the parallel realities. Words become superfluous. And disarmed of language and immediate shelter, Laura tragically assumes an unintentional vulnerability the end to which is unexplained by anything less than psychosis. A crisis of conscious? Hedge your bets. It is more in line with cognitive dissonance latent in double agent and espionage circles. Ava and Samantha would respectively feign and endure the same, albeit as a glitch, in two more accessible films in Ex Machina and Her, but blame that one on the spoon-fed masses and MGTOW who prefer skinny and want to fuck robots. Yet, Under the Skin doesn’t stand to either suffer or benefit from an earlier release than its closest contemporaries. It doesn’t occupy its own vacuum either. And if the payoff was unsatisfactory, or too abrupt for comprehension, few prospects are as rewarding as watching Scarlett Johansson act out her scenes solely with her eyes and be mistaken for a lost Russian illegal.

The alien wanders into a forest and encounters a logger. It is startled out of a nap by the logger attempting to violate her. The struggle spills outside and as the logger accidentally tears open Laura’s skin and contemplates what to do next, it culminates in one of the more chilling endings in cinema. One would have to go back in increments of ten years for a vicious depiction of sexual violence. It recalls the finale of Twentynine Palms when after David is sodomized by goons in front of his girlfriend, he goes ape shit and takes it out on her later. And when Alex has her face smashed into the concrete in Irreversible after being raped. Consider the possible spontaneity of the outburst. Was her assailant, a gay pimp, also motivated by internalized shame of betraying his own norm of only piping dudes, in the same manner as the logger who almost plugs a foreign species? There is also, from Cannibal Holocaust, the tribeswoman the film crew gang rapes and is later impaled by her own tribe and the other who gets sacrificed in ritualistic death by her husband for adultery because now these women are sullied in the court of public opinion. There is an honor killing element to the weakest who have born witness to too much and have to die for it and the tinge of self-loathing sexual predators must surely feel while they violate someone else. They somehow feel they’re the victim! I don’t know about Glazer but this is no shabby company to be mentioned next to. But certainly for him, going the improv route was a deft touch in spite of being a haphazard approach to film making except the inadvertent result was excellent cinema; calculated, provocative, and stripped down to the essentials. It got some of its due in the awards circuit in terms of nominations, netting Scarlett the dubious honor of best nude scene. But the biggest injustice to the film is the misconception that it proposed to answer the question of what it means to be human. Forget otherness and assimilation, minor themes in the film. Forget the gender politics opportunism which got away and was personally debunked by the director himself. Feminists and social justice types in particular must have got thrown off by the rainbow hues from the poster but the film got its fair share of slack from MGTOW who gushed over Ex Machina because they prefer skinny and want to fuck robots. But for better or worse, this could be Scarlett Johansson’s last dalliance with respectability as an entertainer, in the flesh at least, and it went by without much fanfare.



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