Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: "Under the Skin"

Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson, "Laura"

Jonathan Glazer, director

I won't make any bones about it, I LOVE me some ScarJo.  She's a fairly unorthodox actress, exceedingly beautiful, but talented enough to retain the attention of filmgoers beyond her superficial splendor.  Let's face it, there are an abundance of gorgeous actresses who are easy on the eyes, but not so much on the brain when it comes to making a story come to life onscreen.  Of course, the same can be said for actors; probably to a larger degree.

Not every movie Scarlett Johannson has done has made me want to rush to see it, of course.  She stole the show in "Iron Man 2" (to me, anyway, along with Sam Rockwell) and reprised her Black Widow character in more Marvel films, and even made a distinct non-physical presence reverberate in the recent "Her".  I balked at seeing "Lucy" because the premise didn't interest me at all.

And here we have "Under the Skin", a somewhat below-the-radar art house sci-fi/horror human character examination made on the cheap by director Jonathan Glazer.  Anyone who saw "Blade Runner" on its initial release in theatres, where it was viewed as a disappointment at the box office and even critically at the time, now knows that time was indeed very good to that movie.  It's come to be a go-to film for studious and budding moviemakers looking to hone their craft.  This is how I think "Under the Skin" will be looked upon in retrospect in years to come.

Although, "Under the Skin" is not nearly as 'Hollywood' as "Blade Runner" was.  In fact, it seems to go out of its way to avoid that tag, even trying somewhat to play down the beauty of its lead actress with a rather shaggy black wig, faux fur coat and run-of-the-mill street clothes.  Make no mistake, Laura (Johannson's character) is hot, as any man or even woman would agree, but she's normal hot, as opposed to Hollywood hot.

As I watched this movie with my wife, I knew what we were seeing was something weird and probably very polarizing.  When it was over, I didn't know whether I loved it or hated it.  But I knew what I saw meant to challenge me.  Challenge me to interpret the movie on my own, because it wasn't going to make things obvious for me like every other blockbuster does.  There is very little dialogue in "Under the Skin", and it relies on imagery, actions, and subtle suggestions forcing the viewer to try to figure out what they're watching.

This happens right from the get-go.  There's spacey, sphere-like images, scenes resembling eclipses, where light is overtaken by dark.  We learn that Laura is, of course, an alien, with the sole purpose to lure and seduce men back to her dwelling, with the promise of lustful fulfillment.  She has a partner, perhaps partners, in crime; men that traverse the Scottish landscape and city of Glasgow aiding and assisting in her hunt.  As she strips naked and beckons her prey to follow her, they become swallowed up in a pool of black ooze, which processes its victims into food for the alien world Laura is from, and she puts her clothes back on and resumes the pattern.

What's interesting is near the beginning of the film's opening act... the motorcyclist, also an alien assuming human form, collects an unconscious woman from the side of the road in the darkness, and brings her to a white van.  Inside the white van, she is put down, and we see that it's the character we will come to know as Laura - though we don't hear the name audibly.  Yet, the woman that winds up undressing Laura is also Laura.  My assumption is, that they are both aliens, and the laid-out Laura has failed in her own mission for reasons we will never know; however, a tear runs down her face as she watches the other woman assume her identity.  Why would this alien, who assumed a human identity, be brought to tears?  Like I said, nothing is spelled out for anyone.  You watch the rest of the film, and at the end, you get clues as to why she may have arrived in that state.

In the meantime, Laura drives around the streets of Glasgow (note:  not New York, not L.A., not Chicago, Detroit, etc.), scanning the streets for prey, normally lonely or vulnerable men she can convince to come for a ride in her van, and bring them back to her place.  Initially, she's cold.  Her eyes are empty, her actions deliberate, almost machine-like.  But as this alien assumes its human role, it finds out what it's like to be human.  She's cold and calculating, notably in one scene on a beach where a small family is frolicking in the water, at least at first, and she executes her mission with iciness where sexy persuasion fails her.  At this point in the movie, some might stop watching.  When I said this movie is challenging, this is one of the things that I meant.  Things in this movie are meant to make you uncomfortable, to feel.   And in fact, whether she wants to or not, Laura is on a trajectory that will force her to feel, as well.  To be human means to do as much, and she discovers as things progress that it's unavoidable.

In fact, the more she experiences humanity, the more it seems she wants to be human.  She even shows mercy to a victim she traps, a man with elephant man disease, as he's swallowed in the black pool; she sees her reflection in a mirror, spies a fly trapped in a screen, and then we see the man suddenly free and running in a field, naked.  At least for a time.

She slips and falls on the street, and people surround her with concern and offers to help her, and she seems bewildered at their offers.  She winds up on a bus with not much clothing for the weather, and is approached by a man to help her; he brings her to his house, comforts her, feeds her, and gives her the freedom to do as she chooses.  Laura seems taken aback by it all, as if it's a foreign behaviour to her.  But it also seems that she may be adapting, or trying to.  Maybe wanting to.  One by one, she experiences the signatures of what it is to be human:  need, want, desire, empathy, guilt, trust, betrayal, and finally, fear.

By the film's end, we discover why the title is what it is.  And for myself, I flashed back to the movie's opening, the doppleganger in the van being stripped, with a tear in her eye.  I realize that perhaps, Laura #2 encountered the same trappings of humanity that Laura #1 did.

I didn't really get all of this until later, as the movie ran back in my head.  We watched it two nights ago as of this writing, and I'm still coming-to, so to speak, with the message of the film.  Right down to its soundtrack, which is ultra-creepy and haunting, though I hate to say "haunting" because that's an adjective overused for movie scores.  It's just so fitting with this one.  And highly irregular.  As a matter of fact, there are a lot of irregular things going on with this show.  The thick Scottish accents, the lack of high-rise buildings and slick streetscapes, and even several shots where Glazer filmed an incognito Johansson attempting to pick regular-Joe men up on the street, caught on hidden cameras.  (Once footage was attained, these men were told what was going on and were asked permission to have the footage used.)

All said and done, I'd have to recommend you see this show for yourself, but I don't guarantee you'll like it.  At least, not necessarily right away.

Sunday, February 15, 2015