Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: 'Under the Skin' is a Meditative Journey into this Majestic, Isolated World

Scarlett Johansson
Every now and then a film comes along that is so unnerving and ambiguous that it is impossible not to recognize. With striking visuals and a template of sound that stings the subconscious, art house films have had a rocky track record with getting their points across. With that said, director Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is one of those bizarre films that will likely crawl into your memory and implant itself. It is a sci-fi film, but only in the broadest sense of the word and does little to explain what is going on. It is a visceral exploration of humanity and isolation in ways that scenes of elaborate dialogues aren't likely to achieve. To a large extent, this is a film that challenges you to meditate and recognize the beauty and connectivity that makes this world so beautiful.
Following an unknown protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) as she travels through the world, specifically Scotland and England. She is an alien driving around in a van getting directions from people with indiscernible accents. Those that she invites into her inner sanctum don't quite fare so well even as she tries to understand attraction. The story revolves around her exploration not only of the world around her, but the characteristics of the human body. What makes people attracted to the flesh and how does it alienate one another to see things only skin deep? These topics are explored though there isn't specifically a logical answer. What is given is bleak and strange.

The strength of the film comes from its slow, pulsating nature that creates familiar situations into something alien for the audience. Whether it is shopping or going to a dance club, there is something unnerving about the way that it is depicted within the film and its homebody in the protagonist, whose very existence is mysterious. Nothing makes sense and that is the best way to make every aspect of the film shine with clairvoyance. Add in the haunting thuds of strings and percussion of Mica Levi's brilliant score and the film begins to escape the screen. This isn't so much a film as an exploration of Glazer's suggestion of the futility of life. As the film ends with snowflakes falling on the camera, there is a sense that everything that has just been seen is a work of art. Even if that is all that this is, it is a powerful one.

The technique in particular is fascinating. With exception to its lead, there are no recognizable actors in this film. There are a few that are trained, but the majority exists in a realm similar to that of Candid Camera. Using hidden camera, Glazer managed to get the natural reactions that he was looking for through unbeknownst civilians. The feeling is raw and helps to create a natural atmosphere for the character to get lost in. With additional scenes involving black rooms full of goo and transparent imagery, the film is highly artisinal and finds ways to mesh commonplace imagery into new and exciting manners. The most impressive aspect is that even with all of the effort and technique, Glazer's approach to the film feels highly minimalist, which is rather exciting.

The film is by every means an art house film that will likely get comparisons to Stanley Kubrick. Even then, what Glazer has made is at times meditative, haunting, and most of all one of the most original pieces of cinema this year. It is challenging with its provocative imagery and the cutting edge way of guerrilla film making adds a nice touch. Under the Skin is a fascinating film unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. Even for those that find it slow or even pretentious aren't likely to ignore the specificity and craft that went into making this film so endearingly strange. It is a film about an alien trying to make sense of this world. Much like the protagonist, the world is a strange place and this is one of few films that honestly chooses to accept that as fact.

This is a wonderful and enjoyable film. To a large extent, the ads suggesting that Jonathan Glazer is the next Stanley Kubrick aren't too far off. However, to claim it as fact is like suggesting that there is a new Steven Spielberg. There will never be one that is as respected because it has already been done. There are tonal comparisons between Under the Skin and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that is about the limits. In reality, I don't see Glazer being nearly as financially successful as Kubrick. The film is audaciously original, but what people are missing by this comparison is the sense of Glazer being a clone. He isn't. Kubrick never had the chance to shoot scenes with hidden cameras just like Glazer didn't make anything as meticulous. The film is likely to be unparalleled in terms of quality possibly even within the foreseeable future, but to call Glazer the next Kubrick is sort of a plague. At best, directors like Glazer or Paul Thomas Anderson are direct descendants of Kubrick.

With all of this said, I will continue my posts this week with a familiar theme. Like I said with Joe a few days ago, it is too early in the year for films to be considered in the Oscar race. I would love to imagine that we just came off of a terrific weekend with two of the best films of 2014 so far, but they both feel too independently minded to get any trajectory. I predict that Under the Skin will be highly divisive and while its use of minimalism is fascinating, the appeal isn't technical enough to get into the Best Special Effects field. I am kind of disappointed that Mica Levi is also likely to get ignored, though Alexandre Desplat's The Grand Budapest Hotel score remains my favorite for the year so far. If anything, the film's depiction of sexuality is enough to be a little off putting.

With all of this said, it is a relief when the early months of a year produce great work. Much like Stoker, Side Effects and Spring Breakers of 2013, there needs to be a change of pace from dull throwaway films of January. Maybe it is just because I began looking at other avenues, but I am glad to see that the rest of the year has returned to becoming more ambitious and exciting. The only question now is how soon until the Academy recognizes this and gives notice to films that open before June. They used to, but the time needs to come again especially with the growing accessibility to exciting films in new platforms.

Is Under the Skin capable of getting any Oscar nominations, even in the technical? Will Mica Levi continue to make brilliant scores in the future? Why must every art house film of a specific tone be immediately compared to Stanley Kubrick?

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