Monday, 15 September 2014
Under the Skin: Frequently Asked Questions.
Q: What the fuck did I just watch?
A: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, a.k.a. the loosest adaptation of a novel since someone slipped Charlie Kaufman a copy of The Orchid Thief.
Q: About that...Does this movie follow the plot of the book at all?
A: The movie and the book share the same DNA - they're both about a female alien driving around Scotland, picking up men - but their 'point' is very different. Faber's novel takes a fairly campy sci-fi premise and uses it to explore the ramifications of globalisation. Glazer's film takes the same premise and uses it as an exploration of humanity itself.
Q: Wait, what?
A: Under The Skin is a film about what it means to be human. It uses an outsider as its central focus in order to view the human race from a different point of view, in the process attempting to shed new light on who we are as a species.
Q: You realise how up your own arse you sound, right?
A: Yup. I guess I should stress what I always try to stress when I write these things: this film either works for you or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, don't let anybody tell you you're stupid or don't get it or that you should go back to watching Jack and Jill. Movies are totally subjective: love em or hate em, that's your right.
Q: Why was the movie so coy about all that extra-terrestrial stuff then? I mean, the movie doesn't even make it that clear that she is an alien...
A: That's one of the most obvious ways the film and the book differ. Faber spends quite some time in the book revealing the back story of our alien protagonist, Isserley, and goes into detail about her species and their home planet. That's because the novel is interested in big business and the ramifications of farming organic material - the aliens are the novel's stand ins for global corporations.
Glazer doesn't share the same concerns, however. He's not as interested in the practicalities of alien life form - he's interested in human beings. That's why he spends barely any time exploring what the aliens are actually up to.
That's also why he films what happens to the humans after they've been abducted - one of the central plot points in the book - in such a surreal way. He takes the idea of aliens abducting humans for food and transforms it into trippy scenes of naked men climbing into pools of black water. Like so:
Like I said, Glazer is interested in humanity, but not the artsy-fartsy interpretation of what it means to be alive. He's interested in the human form - our flesh and our blood. The film is preoccupied with bodies, obsessed with understanding them the way our alien protagonist is too.
Glazer, like Isserly, is determined to decode the intricacies of being a human being, but, like Isserly, he takes the point of view that we are first and foremost animals, creatures of flesh and blood.
Q: Is that why there's not much talking in this movie?
A: Exactly. What we say is treated as being largely unimportant when compared to what we do. The dialogue in the film is deliberately trivial for that reason. It's why 'Isserly' repeats the same banal phrases - "where are you going? Where are you from?"
That's also why there are all of those shots of 'Isserly' examining people on the street. The figures she's watching aren't talking - they're just engaged in the physical activity most of us undergo every day. The fact that we look and move the way we do is fascinating to an alien point of view.
You know that stoner who sits there staring at their hands, going "duuuude, fingers are so fucking weird."? Well that's 'Isserly' in the movie. And to be honest fingers are kind of weird, if you think about it, which is exactly what this movie wants you to do.
The central arc of the film is the transformation of 'Isserly' from an impartial observer to a creature who is genuinely interested, and perhaps indeed even in awe of, humanity. This transformation is not prompted by poetry, or long discussions of the meaning of love and life, but by the things people do. One of the moments that affects her most is when she trips on the street, and is helped up by people around her. Picking up someone when they fall is almost a reflexively human action - it's not something we'd even really consider unusual, in the circumstances. But it is through quiet, almost subconscious gestures like these that we reveal our true nature as a species.
That also explains the inclusion of one of my favourite moments of the film. It's just after Isserly falls. There's a little montage of people going about their business; standing in line at the ATM; waiting to cross a road; going about their lives. And then there's this shot, right before we cut to a close up of Isserly's eye, of this woman sitting on a bench with her legs out, smoking a cigarette. She notices somebody's approaching and her leg is in the way, so she moves it, just an inch.
It's great because it's the kind of thing that we do all the time. It's so small and inconsequential that a lot of movies wouldn't even bother including it. It's just a person acknowledging the bodies around them - but, as odd as it might sound, seeing it in a film makes me pleased to be a human being on this lump of rock. I mean, sure, we wage wars, and we fuck each other over on a global scale, but on a personal level we have this innate courtesy and care for each other that translates itself into...Well, not being a dickhead and getting out of the way.
Q: So, this is a film about how good we are as a species?
A: Not entirely. After all, the Logger at the film's conclusion isn't a good person. But he's not a bad person either. He's just a human being - flawed, frail, mortal and impulsive. The film doesn't celebrate us, it captures us as we are: trapped, and yet oddly redeemed by the constraints of our lustful bodies.
Q: Fuck me, that might be the most pretentious sentence you've ever written on this site.
A: Y'know, I think you're right. But, while I'm at it, I might as well keep going: the film reminds me of that line in The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when Earth and the human race are summed up in the words mostly harmless. We're insignificant, we're small, we're ape descendants, but we're kinda sorta sometimes alright, in our own way.
Q: I heard that a lot of this movie was shot 'documentary style', with hidden cameras, and non-actors. Why did they do that?
A: Well the film kind of is a documentary - a documentary about human beings. As soon as you get an actor in front of the camera and instruct them to 'act', no matter how good they are, they lose some of their naturalism. They are actively trying to recreate what it's like to be alive, instead of actually, you know, being alive.
Q: How come Scarlett Johansson's in this movie? It doesn't seem like her kind of thing.
A: No, it doesn't, which is why it was such an interesting choice for her to make. You can see why Glazer cast her though. Johansson's such a beautiful human being in such a 'classic' way, she kinda does look like an alien as she walks down an ordinary Scottish street. We treat celebrities as a different kind of human being - it's why we're always so amazed to find out that they do things like eat McDonald's and...dance. So, having a celebrity playing an alien isn't too much of a stretch.
Q: Anything more to say?
A: Not really. Here, have a shot of some guy's bum to balance out all the waffle in this review.
A: You're welcome. Always.