Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: Under the Skin

Version I Watched: Standard definition Redbox DVD rental.

History: Has been in works for quite a while considering it came and went fairly under the radar. The first draft and first attempt to be made was ten years ago. An older draft revolved around a Scottish couple who were revealed to be aliens at the end, one of the pair being played by Brad Pitt. Since that fell through numerous women had been considered for the lead role. Including: Eva Green, Megan Fox, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, and Jessica Biel to name a few before landing on Scarlett Johansson.
The movie was made with a £8 million budget ($13.3 American). Since this was destined to be a limited release movie it didn't make a lot back due to the low number of screens it was on. However the attendance was high in the theatres it was released in. When it initially opened on a mere four screens it earned $140,000. Very high when you consider the average mainstream movie opens anywhere from 2,000-4,000 screens. And if that mainstream movie earned $50 million it's opening week that's a $12,500-$25,000 per screen average, or $50,000-$100,000 every four screens.
It has since earned a lot of praise, currently holding an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Personal History: Found out about this fairly recently. Only a few months ago. So it's not something I've been anticipating for a long time. Was very excited at what I saw when I did hear about it. First viewing of course.

Review: Sometimes I'm glad most movies tend to play out the same as everything else. That way when something 'out of the ordinary' comes along it can be a pleasant and welcome surprise. Especially with something like Under the Skin. An artsy science fiction story released in a time when nerd pop culture has become popular to the point of unbearable. A sad fate to accept knowing my favorite kind of science fiction doesn't come along very often because it's not popular or marketable enough. And unless Interstellar can prove to be as kick ass as I hope it will be, Under the Skin will likely be my favorite science fiction movie of the year.

This movie definitely flew under the radar this year. Despite starring a VERY big name it got a very limited release until it was released on home video. Surprisingly making it to Redbox (not complaining.) I think it can go without saying that of the six movies Scarlett Johansson has starred or co-starred in, in the last two years this will be the least seen, and Lucy hasn't even been released yet.
Not to say a movie's worth is in how many ticket sales it gets. If we ranked the greatest movies ever made by how much money they earned then all four Transformer movies would be very high whereas classics like The Shawshank Redemption would be low. Due to the fact some of the most acclaimed movies ever made were bombs at initial release. And Under the Skin is a movie that definitely deserves your attention even if you're weirded out or confused by the plot of the movie. Wherein an alien is disguised as a human woman to seduce and kill lonely men, eventually leading to a process of self-discovery.

Now I knew ahead of time (as you do now) that she is an alien disguised as a human. Something not explained in at least the IMDB listing and definitely not explicitly explained at the beginning of the movie. Matter of fact, the movie opens very mysteriously.
First we see a man on a motorcycle drive down to what looks like the dock by a river/lake in the middle of the night. He walks into darkness and comes back with what looks like a dead body of a woman. He throws her in the back of a windowless van. Cut to an empty, white void of a room where a nude woman is removing the now very clearly dead woman's clothes and putting them on herself. Showing a sign she's taking her place. It's clear quickly that this is Scarlett's character and this is when things get rolling.
From here a large chunk of the movie is her driving around town in the middle of the night looking for single, lonely men to seduce and kill. If anything else this is where things get most interesting.

My biggest problem and annoyance with modern sci-fi is they're trying too hard to be cool or don't try hard enough to be other worldly. Usually when I see even some of the most popular sci-fi their idea of other worldly are doing similar things people on earth would do but with a quirky twist. Whereas I feel a better way of approaching alien technology and activity as incomprehensible to our train of thought.
For example, I remember when I read through most of Arthur C Clarke's Space Odyssey books. As those books progress it goes farther and farther in the future with the last book taking place in 3001. I haven't read that last book but I hear it's so far in the future and civilization progresses to such a different level than what we know it's barely comprehensible. I saw a preview of that toward the end of the third book. Honestly it made it more interesting because I didn't understand it. I know that's hard for many mainstream audiences to swallow.
Well that's the feeling I got during a few specific scenes. Specifically when she seduces the men and kills them.

Once she finds her victims she takes them back to her place. Suddenly they're in what feels like a black void of a room. Seriously. You can't tell where the walls are, where the door is, even the floor is hard to make out. They're in a totally black and empty room.
Scarlett (her character has no name so I'm just gonna keep calling her that) starts removing her clothes and plays hard to get. Forcing the man to walk toward her while he removes his clothes. Then suddenly in a very well put together effect he slips through the floor progressively like a swimmer at the beach. Once fully submerged Scarlett turns back around and stands above them as if there's no 'water floor' below her. We don't see it the first time around but in a later scene we get a glimpse of what happens next. Of which is harder to explain.
The man floats under the floor, again, as if submerged in water. Suddenly all the life is drained from him only leaving behind his skin. No explanation how it's done. No explanation where it goes outside of a single shot of a slope of red sludge going into an un-explainable hole in the wall. Nothing. Very alien, very hard to understand, makes the story better overall.
This makes this story a good example on how not understanding makes it better. It has the artistic value of being mysterious and full of intrigue. Plus if the story stopped so they could give me a crash course in alien strategies of killing humans it would hurt it for me. I know this was based on a book. Makes me wonder if it goes into it there, though.

So that goes on for a good chunk of the movie until Scarlett meets a physically disfigured man in the middle of the night (played by a man with a real physical disfigurement.) This man is a less intense version of The Elephant Man, I'd say. With a puffy face forcing him to shop at night, even then wearing a hood constantly. Since the alien hero has no apparent concept of what humans consider beautiful this doesn't phase her. Eventually she takes him back to her place yet... somewhat surprisingly his life isn't sucked out of him, at least at first. The next day he's found wandering empty fields naked while Scarlett goes off as if she just had a change of hear or perspective on life.

I'll stop detailing everything before I go too far and just tell you everything that happens in the movie. Basically from here is when her self-discovery journey starts up, though. The direction goes completely different and becomes far more interesting than before. Before this all it really was, was Scarlett running around town talking to men at night. It dragged on for a little longer than it needed to and was wearing thin.
What I liked about the rest of the movie was how her perspective goes in such a neat direction. Despite her appearance of being a woman in her late 20s, early 30s she has a dead and confused look to the world what with being an alien and all. But because she's held up such a human-like (again a dead to the world emotionally human but human enough) persona up to this point you start to remember what she is, yet how she's acting like a human in her discovery. Of course one of these themes is with sex.
In the seduction scenes there was never a point when she engaged in sex. She simply seduced the men and killed them. Quick and easy process after getting home. So later on in the movie when she's about to have sex she has a surprised reaction to it. Just as the man penetrates she jumps up, slides to the end of the bed, grabs the lamp to hold it to her crotch examining it as if to say "What was he doing? What is this?" without saying anything.
On top of this there's a moment when she's standing naked in front of a mirror doing nothing but looking at her body. She is reflecting, examining, and trying to understand her body the same way a teenage girl may as she grows older. It's a charming and fascinating perspective on aliens I've never seen before, or remember seeing before.

Which brings me to something I don't think I should have to say but feel obligated to say because it bugged me a bit. Something that technically has nothing to do with the movie itself... technically. A part of me thinks Scarlett Johansson shouldn't have played the part but for reasons that may not be obvious at first.
The story is quite sexual without having a lot of sex. With that said there's some nudity. Mostly male and during the black pool scenes. However there are a couple moments when Scarlett Johansson strips. Stay with me here. One of those moments is from far away and in a profile. However in the scene where she's examining her nude body not only is it full frontal but it focuses on all the... ahem... focal points.
Where am I going with this? I'm afraid this will be known by some solely as "the movie Scarlett Johansson gets naked in" and killing any sort of artistic integrity it may have to some groups of people. I'm not saying she CAN'T play the part and CAN'T strip. In a way I was a little surprised she wasn't as photoshop thin as other women you see naked in movies. But that's respectable. She's still one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood if you ask me. Also the nudity is integral to the story and her self-discovery. But since the role was played by such a big name I fear that's how it may turn out to some.
Please don't let it be that way. Still can't shake the feeling it's already that way to some. Which is a shame because now I almost with this movie starred someone else and was even more obscure so it could keep the (potentially) lost artistic value because of some pervy young dudes.

Then again I'm sure all the people who actually like this movie won't think that way so maybe I'm talking out my ass.

I will say this wasn't all I hoped it would be. I felt I over-thought what this movie would be like and what it'd be about. So in a way I felt underwhelmed. I was not disappointed though. That was simply my mind working too hard hoping it to be something it definitely wasn't from the start.
The best side-by-side example I can make to this is Another Earth. In a way it reminded me of that if not for (pardon the pun) down to Earth sci-fi drama. While Another Earth wasn't about an alien in disguise it was still a big story on a small scale, dealing with the discovery of an identical Earth and how it affects one woman and her life. The whole story plays out very small scale much like this one.
So I definitely think you should see Under the Skin, but I can't recommend it to just anyone. Whatever you took away from this review I can tell you it'll (likely) be different than you expect. Even with so many moments explained step by step. Even then this is a movie to experience, not just watch. It's not very dialogue heavy and when there is dialogue it doesn't last long. Mostly enough to move to the next scene. That way you can become a part of the characters in the experience. Not by listening to them but by watching and feeling them go through their experiences.

It is one of the most unique sci-fi movies of the year despite some of it's missteps. It sure as hell is a lot different than what Guardians of the Galaxy will be.

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