Friday, July 11, 2014

Under the Skin

I love watching movies.  I consider motion pictures to be one of the greatest and most magical experiences that society has to offer.  A truly great film can take you away, filling you with excitement and joy beyond all good reason and judgment.  But I also understand, that though the footage on screen may be stimulating and incredible, the act of film making is not nearly as glamorous.  There is real work behind even something as fun and visceral as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier".  Some workers have to sit down and figure out where to point the camera, crew members have to organize shots, people have to set up cars and explosions, and actors need to go over scenes dozens of times.  This is a job like any other, and there must be days that have probably been just hideously boring.  Grips probably get tired of holding up boom mics, cameramen want to go home, and directors will sip coffee to stay awake.

Typically between that dull reality of mundane effort and the entertaining illusion of the medium is an editor.  That is still more basic work inside an office, cutting through mountains of footage in front of a computer screen.  Usually at the end, one is left with an impressive final product, one that gleams so naturally with its own charisma that the entire experience seems like an effortless adventure.  It works so well you forget the facade and believe in the fiction.  You never think about the hard work that went into it.  Because this is an adventure for you, it's an escape.  You don't want to imagine the poor bastard operating cranes for nine hours in the cold.  I only start to imagine the drudgery and misery of filmmaking reality when the movie itself is just amazingly boring.  Remember as tedious and unimpressive as watching a bad movie like "Under the Skin" is, it had to be 100 time as awful an experience to make.

"Under the Skin" has been billed as an artsy take on a SciFi horror genre product.  Scarlette Johansson plays a seductive alien in human skin, prowling around Scotland and devour men by luring them to their doom with her sex appeal.  Rather than jumping into the lurid details of the product - making a trashy pulp horror film filled with nudity and gore, director Johnathan Glazer has ignored the natural impulses of the story and made something far less interesting.  It is a slow miserable product of sustained uneventfulness, focusing on an emotionless robotic actress driving around the grey wastes of Scotland in a van, doing very little of anything.  It is the kind of movie that you imagine was made with no passion of any kind, you can only picture a depressed crew, standing around in tense silence, as they film absolutely nothing for days.  I feel bad for Scarlette Johansson, I feel bad for Johnathan Glazer, I feel bad for the cameraman.  They had to spend long bitter months making this movie, months of their lives they won't get back.  All I lost was two hours.

The overall reception to "Under the Skin" has been largely positive, mostly thanks to film critics being unusually glad to have a film they can say is a "take-that" to faithful genre filth like "Species"*.  "Species" is, of course, a movie all about tits and special effects, obviously low art made for the basest of reasons.  "Under the Skin" is a movie that offers no animal pleasures to its audience.  You will not get prurient thrills - though Scarlette Johannsson does spend a satisfyingly long time on camera with no cloths on.    Claims that this is a character study or a drama fall flat when you remember that this is a movie starring a viscous predator entirely lacking in emotions or depth.  This is a movie without characters, let alone people or aliens with names, it is also mostly without a plot.  If you hadn't known this was a movie about Scarlette Johannssan as an alien, you would no idea what was going on until the very end.  In the end you lose the B-movie charms, and you receive nothing but a movie that crawls through its two hour running time.

This one shot or some variation on it makes up about 70% of this film.
I would like to say that even though it is a movie starring a monster that eats Scottish men, Scarlette Johannson's character still was connectable or meaningful to the audience.  She is not.  You don't get much of a sense of a stranger in a strange land, she instinctively knows how to become an unassuming non-threatening sex object to lead on lonely men with a smile and connectionless conversation.  It would have been more clever to make a charming character and then pull back the rug, revealing all of it as an act of a mindless predator.  The audience was just as fooled and trapped as the victims in the film.  But there are no illusions here, this is a movie about an alien lacking in all character.  There is nothing more behind the empty vacant stare.  The film pounds along in its strange way, explaining nothing, until its heroine wanders to the climax.  She has learned nothing, gained nothing, and in turn we have learned nothing about her.

"Under the Skin" follows often in the unfortunate footsteps of filmmakers like Terrence Mallick.  Most of the movie is Johannson in a van, often enough picking up random men on the street in ab libbed conversations.    One gets the sense that hundreds of hours of tapes were left on the cutting room floor, as Johnathan Glazer filmed huge tapes of material and cut together the most interesting bits.  Whole scenes are put together with hidden cameras inside the van, like we're watching the world's weirdest candid camera reality program - a superstar in a white van, making small talk.  Apparently dieing her hair black was enough to make her unrecognizable to the blokes of Britain's north.  Then eating them.  Some scenes simply drag forward for no reason, Johannsson stares into space, thinking of nothing.  (Imagine that day of shooting:  "now, Scarlette, sit here and make no expression while we film you for an hour".)  This is also the kind of movie lacking in nearly any dialog, and no real major developments in its plot.

Look, it's my blog.  If I want Scarlette Johannsson in her underwear, I will have it.
Unfortunately Johnathan Glazer is not Terrence Mallick.  Mallick has shown an uncanny ability to bring out the beauty in anything, he is a master of cinematography.  I've seen him turn Walmats, gaudy temples of naked artless capitalism, into paintings so lovingly developed that they could be framed in museums.  Glazer's camera seems to bring out nothing but the worst of everything.  Poor Scotland is made to look like the most unhappy place in the world:  constantly damp, eternally overcast, filled with bitter people wandering down bitter streets under bitter skies.  You will find more pleasant views in Dachau.  Even the beaches look dark and uninviting.  Detroit, the world's first post-apocalyptic city, looked more inviting and happy in "Only Lovers Left Alive".  The only figure that has any beauty at all is the supermodel at the center of it, who to the movie's credit, does look completely out of place in this landscape of unending despair.  Of course, the visuals do match the movie.  Every shot of "Under the Skin" perfectly captures the absolute misery of this entire film.

That is to not say that there are not moments of visual brilliance or even cleverness from this movie.  I particularly like the method in which Johnnsson's character dispatches her pale shabbily-dressed meals.  The men wander into a completely black void and simply sink into the floor.  It makes no logical sense, but the weirdness of the moment fits the other-worldliness of the film's content.  Metaphor or reality, this was something creepy you could sink your teeth into.  In the lone actually chilling scene, we follow a naked man as he sinks into the weird abyss.  He is trapped alone, until he meets a previous victim, who is screaming silently for help.  Then the other man's entire body is sucked dry, leaving nothing but a floating sack of skin in the deep, occasionally morphing into a recognizable human form.  Unfortunately this scene is a short break from the usual grey nothingness of the rest of the movie.  We then return to our regularly-scheduled program of empty boredom.  I also rather likd the design of the alien underneath the skin, which looked like the black abyss having taken humanoid form.

The alien staring into its own costume's face.  Another rare moment of brilliance.
I guess if you still are not sold on how truly terrible this movie is, I can tell you it only gets worse as time goes by.  It turns gross and uncomfortable, thanks to babies being left to die in the wilderness, and violent rapes in the middle of the woods.  There is truly nothing to enjoy anywhere here, and even if you are not completely bored, you will be disgusted.

Really what was wrong with "Species"?  Yeah it wasn't trying to be some kind of huge art film to collect praise from the snobby segments of the film world, and it certainly didn't compete in any European film festivals.  Even I would admit that it is far from the greatest movie ever made.  But it knew exactly how to play for its crowd.  Be fun and campy, be shameless and shallow, and make sure to splurge on the alien effects.  "Under the Skin" isn't fun, but it somehow is still entirely shallow.  It's still built on instinctual rejections of loose women, old puritan warnings against free sex.  "Don't sleep with that random woman who seems to like you in the club, or she'll eat you!"  "Species" had no illusions of what it was, and you can respect it for that.  "Under the Skin" is a movie without a soul, and the critics who have been drawn in have been fooled just as badly as the pale Scots who became meals for an extraterrestrial beauty.  There is nothing here, nothing at all.

* So is this going to be a "thing" now?  Arthouse films adapting the subjects of trashy horror films to create pretentious slow critical darlings?  Will we have a boring version of "Friday the Thirteenth" next involving two hour of montages of trees between the beheadings?  Maybe Terrence Mallick can step in and make a sequel to "The Conjuring" involving two generations of families, the birth of the universe, and a confused looking Sean Penn on a beach along with the ghosts?

No comments:

Post a Comment