Under the Skin – further thoughts (**WITH SPOILERS**)

Posted: March 19, 2014 in English language
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

As I noted in my original review of Under the Skin, this is a movie that doesn’t provide the viewer with explanations. It provides you with the images and then demands that you piece together the story yourself. Since that first review I have read an interview with director Jonathan Glazer in Sight and Sound magazine, and earlier tonight I saw the film a second time. For the past few days I have constantly had scenes from the film running through my mind, to the point that I just had to go back for another viewing. This posting isn’t so much a second review, but a slightly haphazard collection of thoughts that have occurred to me since my first viewing and, particularly, since tonight’s viewing.

One thing to note is that the film opens with a completely black screen and ends with a completely white one, a nice twist on the screenwriting rule-of-thumb that the mood at the end should be the opposite of the mood at the start. On the black screen that we begin with, a small white dot appears, getting larger (or closer), and eventually it becomes apparent that we are seeing the creation of the alien’s eye*. In the final scene we see the burnt black corpse of the alien, and then the camera tilts upwards towards the falling snow, until the screen is entirely filled with white.

Going back to the opening images again, we hear – slightly fuzzily – words being repeated. These, of course, are the alien learning the language “she” will be speaking on earth. But the background to this is rather interesting. From Glazer’s Sight and Sound interview I learned that these rehearsals were not a planned part of the film. The recordings were actually of Scarlett Johansson working on her English accent. Needless to say, this Hollywood superstar is an alien herself when placed in the streets of Glasgow so it seemed quite natural to incorporate these word rehearsals as part of the movie itself.

Previously, I suggested that the alien is storing her human victims as a food source. I have since learned that Michael Faber’s original novel was making quite a strong statement about factory farming. I don’t know how much more detail the book goes into this business of farming, but it did occur to me that the alien is having to expend an awful lot of energy to obtain her human victims. When animals obtain food, there is always a tradeoff to be made by how far an animal must travel, how much food can be carried, and the energy obtained. When I watched the alien trying to drag a body along a beach, it did strike me that this was quite a cost-intensive way of obtaining food. Even the idea of driving around in a van, seeking men who are alone, and then taking them back to a house, seemed like quite a big effort. However, that was a level of reality that I could quite easily push to the back of my mind, as the film has much more interesting things to focus on.

Incidentally, that scene on the beach was really quite extraordinary. The alien is talking to a swimmer clad in a wetsuit, when he spots someone in trouble and goes to assist. A woman is swimming out into rough sea to rescue her dog, who is being carried away from the beach. In turn, the man who is with her has spotted that she is also going to need help, and he starts swimming out to her. I have no idea how this scene was filmed, but it really did look frighteningly dangerous. I was quite concerned for the actors involved! And all the time, the alien watches completely impassively.

In the second half of the film the alien becomes vulnerable. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what brought about this change. The alien stops her van whilst on a country road. Why? Did she run out of petrol? Was there a breakdown? I wondered also whether she might have been disoriented by the fog that had descended; she certainly appeared confused once she actually began walking out in the fog.

The last part of the film seems to be touching on the theme of women’s fears, and particularly the idea that the world can be an alien place for them. A kindly Scottish man offers his assistance and the two of them end up spending time together, and ultimately going to bed together. In this scene, the impassive alien, who has mostly seemed unconcerned with human emotions, actually seems to respond to the man’s attentions. However, in the final scenes of the film the alien is hunted in a forest by a would-be rapist lorry-driver. His attempted rape is pretty ghastly to watch. Even here, though, there is one moment that reminds us that our vulnerable young woman is in fact an alien being. Whilst she is lying on the ground and he is attempting to force himself upon her, we see her eyes turn to the sky. We realise that she is captivated by the falling snowflakes, a phenomenon that she has presumably never experienced before. When the lorry driver realises that this woman is not actually human, he pours petrol over her and sets her alight. The final shot of the alien in flames reminded me of that other classic that ends with a burning in a remote part of Scotland – The Wicker Man (I’m not suggesting this was a deliberate parallel, but who knows?).

In my view, this is a film that deserves recognition at awards ceremonies. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is outstanding. In the first half she alternates between a smiling flirtatiousness that few men could resist, and an impassively blank face that gives absolutely nothing away. Later, in the lovemaking scene her behaviour indicates something that we would recognise as tenderness if she were human. Finally, her fear and bewilderment when she is trying to escape her attacker are quite palpable.

Glazer himself needs to be considered at awards time for the amazing originality of his directorial vision. Daniel Landin’s cinematography is breathtaking at times, and Mica Levi’s musical score perfectly complements the visuals and the action. Both are also deserving of awards nominations.

* In my original review I referred to the alien as “Laura”, as this is what she is called on the iMDB cast entry. However, I don’t recall that we ever hear her name in the film, so maybe this is just how she appeared in the script.

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Comments
  1. halfang says:

    Mostly agree with the review (and second thoughts) and the film is certainly growing on me.
    However:
    -No mention of the bikers and their role within the alien invasion.
    -I assume Laura is either a settler or part of a research project, with some controllers (the bikers) who liaise with the aliens and “tell them off” if they leave traces (after beach scene, lead biker goes back to collect evidence, and then tells her off in the dark place / scene with pebbled floor.
    -everything starts to fall apart once she meets the deformed man. Compassion? Shared rejection? He doesn’t get recycled like the others.
    -use of skins: I think this is due the nature of the mission. Research, harvest of skins to be reused later (floating in black tank and pop! (that was scary)), which ties to her being part of a reused prostitute/dead body collected from the side road.
    -basically, my theory is as follows: alien is made reusing old skin, filled with black / blue entity (swapping entire populations? Everyone turns into a robot?). New entity refuses deformed skin from deformed man. Yes most were lonely men, but someone must have noticed that they went missing… Unless they return as other entities, with swapped insides. After the refusal she breaks down / escapes, ends up in forest and then dies to “humanity”.

    I have no idea if this is accurate or what!

    Like

    • Thanks for the comments. I gather quite a lot was cut during the process of adapting the book, thus leaving us to guess at what is happening. I’m tempted to go and read the book.

      Like

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