Every Oscar season brings its share of annoyances and the 2013 award season was no exception. I was annoyed by people who seem to have thought that 12 Years a Slave directed itself, by people who didn’t seem to understand that The Wolf of Wall Street could show horrible people without actively endorsing their behavior, and I was annoyed by all the people who couldn’t recognize the obvious brilliance of Inside Llewyn Davis. However, nothing bugged me quite as much as the frequent mislabeling of the movie Gravity as a science fiction film. There was a true science fiction film in that awards race, and it wasn’t Gravity, it was Her; a film set on a recognizable earth and mostly devoid of large special effects. I had my problems with that movie but it did strike me as a bit odd that it wasn’t the film being given the credit for being the science fiction breakthrough of 2013 while a movie that uses entirely contemporary technology was. Blame it on Star Wars and Star Trek if you must, but for whatever reason large portions of the general public seem to think that science fiction is something that begins and ends in outer space, which it doesn’t. Now in 2014 we’ve got another science fiction film (albeit one with elements of horror) called Under the Skin which doesn’t necessarily conform to people’s basic expectations of the genre.
Under the Skin is a difficult film to summarize because it has an unconventional structure and it very deliberately avoids revealing itself upfront. I guess the film’s one sentence log line is that it’s about an unnamed alien (Scarlett Johansson) disguised as a voluptuous woman who uses her beauty to lure men into her lair in order to trap them like flies in a spider-web. I don’t want to discuss the plot too much further, but I will say that the story is very oblique and that there’s a pretty substantial change of pace at about the halfway point.
Usually when people accuse a film of being “like a music video” they’re referring to the style of fast paced cutting and slick cinematography that crept into cinema after the advent of MTV. There are, however, many different kinds of music videos and for a brief period in the late 90s and early 2000s they became a legitimate platform for adventurous (if sometimes rather pretentious) filmmaking, and it was during this era that director Jonathan Glazer made his mark on the medium by making a number of really interesting videos for bands like Radiohead and Massive Attack. Like most videos, these were high concept affairs but ones that had a real sense of mystery to them. My favorite of them was the video for a song called “”Rabbit in Your Headlights” which shows a strange homeless guy with torrettes trying to walk through a tunnel and getting hit by slow moving cars, and right when you’re about to say “what the hell is this” it hits you with an image at the end that sends shivers down your spine even though you have no idea what it’s really supposed to mean.
Glazer’s first film Sexy Beast was a serviceable crime thriller in the Guy Richie mold, but it didn’t really display much of his signature style. This film on the other hand feels in many ways like a Jonathan Glazer music video expanded to feature length. Like a music video, the film is mostly told visually and rarely uses dialogue as a means of exposition. In fact, most of the dialogue that is in the film seems to be deliberately hard to understand; most of the actors in it have extremely thick Scottish accents and even if they didn’t most of what they’re saying is drowned out by sound effects and music. As such, you’re sort of on your own in trying to figure out exactly what’s going on here and why. That’s not to say it’s impossible to figure out by any means and in many ways the story seems to be deceptively simple, but it’s definitely not the kind of movie that spells out what’s going on and a lot of it is left up to the viewer to dissect.
Like the best of Jonathan Glazer’s music videos there are images in Under the Skin which are really interesting, unsettling, and in their own disturbing way awe inspiring. I was particularly impressed by a moment about half way through that operates almost as a sort of jump scare, albeit an earned one. However, in the back of my mind I felt like a lot of these ideas might have indeed been better served if they had indeed been divided up and turned into a couple of music videos rather than stuck into a rather experimental feature film that’s more interested in creating a mood than it is in telling a story. It’s not a film for anyone who’s lacking in patience or who demands a traditional three act structure, but I’m still definitely going to recommend the film if only for the three or four moments of brilliance that make it worth the price of admission.
*** out of Four