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Monday, July 14, 2014
Under the Skin
|By Sati.||Monday, July 14, 2014||2014, Horror, Jonathan Glazer, movies, review, sci-fi, U, Under the Skin|
Let me preface this by saying that I did like the movie a lot. Unfortunately, since I am familiar with book material there's going to be a lot of 'oh, what could have been!' talk here.
It's been a year, more or less, since I read Michel Faber's terrific novel Under the Skin. Since I don't have much time to read fiction, I don't spend my time with books that often. The main reason I usually do is because there is a movie in the works based on the novel and it sounds amazing. So what happens is I read the book, I love it and then I see the movie. And it's not the right way to go. At all.
There are some books that are unfilmable and Under the Skin is most definitely one of them. I cannot agree with people saying that Jonathan Glazer proved those who say it's impossible to adapt the novel wrong. He didn't. Under the Skin may share most of main plot points with the book, but it's not really an adaptation. It's more a film inspired by the book, illustration of its atmosphere, but one that isn't sharing most of the substance with the source material.
Ironically, as well as this movie works as a stand alone science fiction film, there is a great tragedy in Glazer making this movie the way he did - the best thing about the novel was how thought provoking it was. Because this movie was made it's very unlikely we will get another adaptation any time soon, that would actually focus on what was the most shocking and affecting part of the novel - the reason for the protagonist's quest and forcing you to step into her shoes (that is if you aren't vegetarian).
Much like Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, Under the Skin focuses on just one theme from the rich and complex novel and what it does, mostly, is capture the atmosphere of the story as a whole. The film focuses on the search of identity of the protagonist, nameless alien who appears completely numb to the people around her. She drives around luring men to her car and then leads them to her apartment where they....
Exactly, what happens there?
In the book Isserley (which is her name) was sent to Earth to collect men. They were then castrated and fattened in pens and slaughtered like pigs - their meat is a delicacy on Isserley's home planet. The movie cleverly managed to capture the essence of the mood surrounding those scenes - by showing us one of the victims witnessing horrifying fate of the previous one, with its insides sucked into the void, leaving a hollow skin suit. Then we saw meat being send in some sort of red signal, which most likely went completely unnoticed by non book readers, but for those familiar with the novel was a nice little nod.
And that's essentially what bugged me about the movie - it's a nod, not a depiction - you have the atmosphere but it doesn't work as well without all the substance and all the background story. In the book in the most chilling scene Isserley sees one of the mutilated men write the word MERCY on the ground and small acts of kindness among the doomed men towards each other. In the film the equivalent of that is the new victim touching the hand of the other. It's not nearly as powerful, moving or affecting, it's just the abstract reading of the novel which really doesn't work this well. As impossible some of the aspects of the book would be to translate on the screen (mainly the look of the aliens), I wish they would have stayed closer to the novel in depicting the victims' fate.
Still, for those unfamiliar with the book story this worked. But where the film truly fails is in portraying the search for herself of the protagonist. In the book Isserley was mutilated to look like a human - half of her body was hacked off (you can see the depiction of her alien race here). Her vagina is basically a hollow replica and it doesn't work. In the book we have her discover gradually that she is just an imitation who will never be completely human, never really become a woman and ever truly belong, in the film we get Scarlet Johansson shine a light on her privates. Literally. With a lamp.
The switch from her doing what she does to becoming more human is clumsily portrayed in the movie. The whole story with deformed man and her freeing him is quite incomprehensible. Glazer had something there, in place - showing her desensitized reaction to baby on the beach and then children being present in many scenes. But he didn't focus on that. He went with the other story and I for one didn't understood any of protagonist motivation here. It's a shame too, as Isserley does notice the children around her in the movie and Glazer really could have used that horrific beach scene as the point of her transformation, given how it's the most powerful moment of the movie.
I think he completely misunderstood the novel - the reason for Isserley becoming more human and appreciating our race is her witnessing the small things, the potential in humanity, the fact that we have intelligence, the fact that we can be kind. It's not an oddity, a deformed man, the outsider of human race that moves her, it's her own discovery of what it means to be human as a species.
The baby scene is another issue - in the book, as far as I can recall, Isserley saw a dead animal on the beach. Here the baby's story is so horrific and exaggerated it completely prevented me from feeling for her character. She is almost raped and then burned alive in the end. But why should I care? Humans as species care for the young of other species - if you saw a small puppy, alone, you'd help him. She doesn't do that. That's monstrous. That shows her species has no empathy. While it was also true in the novel, the scene with the baby is so shocking it goes far and beyond what one can endure and forgive, leaving no chance for you to feel for this creature.
Because of that scene I was left completely cold. In the book watching Isserley slowly becoming more human, having all those doubts, feeling satisfaction at seeing a man mutilated after another man almost raped her - that all made her a rich character, sometimes even a very innocent one when she was discovering things for the first time. So when in the end she commits suicide because she is injured and trapped and - she cannot be discovered, taken to the hospital for tests, because of who she is - it makes you feel for her unlike in the movie.
Another issue - in the books and I think in general with these alien stories - it is so frightening because these creatures are so much smarter than we are. Isserley never does really stupid things and if she does she recognizes them as such being mad at herself - that's the book. In the movie we see her fall asleep alone in the woods. Just what kind of an idiot is she, exactly? She saw that men are dangerous, previously in the movie, when they were trying to break into her van. Glazer wants to make us feel for her as if she was a child - but he previously shows her doing terrible things and witnessing things that should make her know better than to place herself in certain situations. That's a contradiction and one of the things that makes the second part of the movie so much weaker than the first.
The film, while it fails as the adaptation of the book story almost completely, does something admirable and that is capturing the scenes from the novel in the form of shots, music and overall mood of scenes - the ending of the novel has Isserley rejoice at the fact she would be one with the nature in death - in the film you have wonderful long shot in the end of her ashes flying up to the sky. It's a scene so surreal and well made that it almost makes you forget the last 30 minutes leading up to it were not on par with the rest of the film.
While the film fails to show you her strong connection to the nature, it's amazing how far one shot can go - and that is the image of sleeping Isserley merged with the image of the forest. The whole visual side of the film is not only magnificent but sometimes it actually helps to communicate big parts of the story and that takes a lot of talent and skill.
While the film was very disappointing as an adaptation (I don't think it even has the right to use the words 'based on', they should have gone with 'inspired by') it's a mesmerizing piece of standalone science fiction - it's such a voyeuristic adventure, where we basically follow this strange creature every step of the way. We see her arrive, adapt and die. And while it didn't make me feel anything it was a splendid cinematic experience.
Perhaps the film leaving me so cold fits this story and the way it was shown - in a surreal, detached, very minimalistic way. Much like the heroine we are forced to experience this hollow, strange world and sometimes react to it in a matter as puzzled as her own. Even the very beginning doesn't make you feel, it just forces you to watch - in astonishing sequence we see what we can only assume is the creation of the protagonist's eye.
There is actually a great focus on her eyes here, almost suggesting this is the thing that makes her experience our world the most - in a puzzling sequence, a person who I can only refer to as her supervisor, stares into her eyes as if looking for a clue that perhaps she adapted too much and it's time for her to go.
I appreciate that Glazer added all those small mysteries and odd little moments, further distinguishing this piece from the source novel. He also completely altered the look of the alien in the end, while again, the book ending worked better, it was a curious irony in the movie that Isserley died a lot like her own victims - helpless and in horrific circumstances.
While direction and cinematography are incredible the main two stars of the movie are Scarlett Johansson and Mica Levi. Johansson is perfectly cast and it's not because she is beautiful. For me - she isn't. I think she is a very attractive woman but her face is not proportional nor is it particularly striking, which is perfect because Isserley was modeled after the magazine pictures of women - she is made into what men desire and it's often noted by the hitchhikers that she is quite odd looking. Judging from the response to this movie, and I'm not sure whether it's Scarlett's voice, the way she moves or her body - men would follow her into that car even if she told them what would happen to them. Even if she told them the book version, probably. It's something about her. She is the perfect bait.
This is definitely Johansson's best work, on par with Her. She is just so convincing as someone who is trying to imitate a human being. The quick changes on her face - from fake smile to the look of annoyance as it becomes clear this particular man won't follow her, to the look of complete confusion at the sight of blood, her performance is amazing. She switches effortlessly from being childlike in one scene to her being a cold predator in the other.
The last 40 minutes of the movie is much worse than the first half, mostly because of the weak script failing to portray the protagonist's reasons and feelings but Johansson is still bringing in her A game. I also have to note how courageous that performance is - it's not even about the lack of lines (the film is so gripping, though, you don't even notice how little dialogue there is) or her having all those nude scenes. It's about how dangerous it was to film.
The men she picks up were not actors. The film was shot often with the use of hidden cameras with Johansson basically driving around talking to strangers. That she wasn't recognized is a miracle, but there is also a profound sense of relief the petite actress wasn't attacked at any point of the filming. I only hope she had a bodyguard nearby at all times.
As tremendous as the visual side and her performance is, the glue that holds it all together is Mica Levi's haunting, otherworldly score which really pulls you right in the creepy atmosphere of the story. It is by far the finest, most detailed work by composer I heard in a very long time and without it the movie wouldn't work half as well.
As much as I wish the film would follow the novel more closely, which would most likely result in a terrific piece of science fiction and horror, Under the Skin is certainly a unique experience carried by Johansson's fearless performance and the atmosphere that you won't be able to forget for quite a while after seeing the film. Unlike the novel it doesn't make you think - but it makes you experience the story on some sort of surreal, subconscious, primal level. And that's way more than most movies do nowadays.