Saturday, April 19, 2014

On the Big Screen: UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

Jonathan Glazer's film is one that shows but doesn't tell. That'll make it a take it-or-leave it picture for many viewers, and I'm not sure if there's much to take from it. It's yet another film dedicated to the premise that Scarlett Johansson is a higher life form -- see also Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the forthcoming Lucy. This time, She Who Must Not Be Called ScarJo is an alien who arrives on Earth -- willingly or not remains unclear. She has a handler or minder who rides a motorcycle, provides her with a dead body to mimic and its clothes to wear, and cleans up her messes. She finds herself in Scotland, where the natives' accent is nearly as impenetrable to American ears as the alien gibberish the star utters in the opening sequence. She cruises the streets looking for single men; if they mention that they have family or a girlfriend, she lets them go their way. Otherwise, she entices them into her vehicle and takes them to her crash pad, where she further seduces them with a walking striptease. As if they can't resist, the men follow her, but as she keeps on walking they sink into the black floor. We learn that they remain alive and more or less conscious for a time, but that a terrible fate awaits them. The purpose of it all remains elusive, and the alien herself seems to question it after a time. When you look for single men you run into some sad cases. One such is a fellow with what looks like a mild case of John Merrick's disease, who admits to never having a girlfriend and rarely even touching a woman. The alien can't bring herself to trap this poor wretch, but her mercy proves futile as the motorcycle dude hunts the man down. That mercy proves futile may be the nearest this film gets to a moral.

The alien seems determined to quit her work and experiment more with her assumed humanity. An attempt to eat cake goes badly -- are those unfortunate men her normal food supply? -- as does an attempt at sex. It turns out that she's a more fragile creature than we might have thought and no super man-eater out of Species. Worse yet, once she stops being the predator, she almost inevitably becomes prey. Maybe she has it coming but you can't help feeling sad over the outcome, unless you can't feel anything at all given Glazer's unempathetic approach to his material. While he takes many stylistic chances to make things strange, a cosmic impassivity is the basis of the film's horror. The best bit of filmmaking in the picture actually leaves Johansson as little more than a spectator. The alien tries to hook up with a vacationing swimmer who breaks away to attempt a rescue of a hapless family. The wife has gone into the pounding surf to rescue their dog; the husband goes in after her. The swimmer can only reach the husband, but as he collapses in exhaustion bringing the man to shore, the man promptly goes back to the water after his wife. Meanwhile, the alien strolls over and brains the swimmer with a carefully-chosen stone. And at this point we realize that husband and wife have left their baby behind, bawling on the beach. While there's something chillingly uncanny about the victims sinking into the floor at the alien's house as she strides on all godlike, this sequence on the water is more primally terrifying. It gets hard to peg the alien as evil when nature as a whole, and humanity in its turn, proves so merciless. The effect by the end is a good deal more horrifying than many more blatant horror films, because here the horror goes deeper than the spook-show gimmickry that prevails elsewhere, and does so without the reassurance of explanation most horror movies offer. Under the Skin is really no more profound than that, but to be that effectively chilling is no small achievement.

No comments: