Saturday, May 10, 2014

Under the Skin

Alternate Title:  Purgatory

One sentence synopsis:   An alien masquerading as human kidnaps and murders lone drifters in Scotland.

Things Havoc liked:  So... let me explain.

Some weeks on this project are easy. Some weeks I have a plethora of films that I want to see, and the hardest decision I have to make is picking which one to see first. The week that Winter Soldier came out was not a particularly hard one for me to make up my mind about, for instance. That's not to say that these films are always amazing, reading back through my archive will reveal that much, but movies like that are no-brainers. Yet some weeks, particularly around Doldrums season, are not so simple, where it becomes increasingly hard to find something I want to watch. Normally in such cases, I take a guess as to what might look good or at least interesting, and see what I see. The results I experience with this policy vary (obviously), as it has led me to godawful movies at times (Timothy Green comes to mind), but also to hidden gems that I might not otherwise have seen (the original Raid, for instance). Indeed, I tend to approach occasions like this with a mixture of dread and hope, bearing in mind the whole time that hands down the best film I ever saw on this project, Cloud Atlas, was the product of one such week in which I had nothing to see and decided to take a chance. It is good to remember, when going into a film that one knows nothing about, that sometimes you get something wonderful.

Things Havoc disliked: And sometimes you get this.

I have seen bad movies in the course of this experiment, dear readers. I have seen horrors the likes of which would send a lesser critic screaming into the night. But even at the nadir of my experiences with cinema over the last three years it is rare that I run into a film as bad as this. A classic mark of a bad film is that it makes you start checking your cell phone to see how much time is left. A really bad film has you wondering if your phone's timekeeper has stopped. This film convinced me at one point that we had actually reached the end of linear time, and that all that was left was to watch Under The Skin. Forever.

First, the plot, which consists of [TO BE FILLED IN WHEN THE PLOT FINALLY SHOWS UP].  But forget the plot, let us focus on the characters, which include Scarlett Johansson as [???] and [is anyone else IN this movie?]. No seriously, that's about all I've got. Johansson's character is credited as "Laura", but she is never named within the film, nor given any sort of character or opportunity to develop one. Oh there are gestures in that direction, to be sure, as she revolts against the unseen forces leading her to commit her heinous acts such as "Motorcycle guy" and... um... "OTHER motorcycle guy" (in retrospect that might have been the same guy). But nowhere in the film do we get the slightest hint of who or even what she is, and given that the film is entirely about the question of "who she actually is, really", this is something of a serious problem!

I'm not making any sense, am I? Let me try this again.

"Laura", or "complete cypher" as I call her, is some kind of alien, a fact I, at least, discovered only at the end of the film. Why then am I spoiling it? Because the movie does not go out of its way to hide this fact from us, concealing it for some kind of narrative payoff. It is simply so shockingly poorly made that vital information such as this is not conveyed to the audience, even though the film clearly believes that it has been. Disguised as Scarlett Johannson (or something), she makes the rounds of the Scottish countryside, looking for drifters, loners, and people who will not otherwise be missed. She picks these men up under the promise of sex, taking them to dark, abandoned buildings where they strip naked before being drowned in some kind of oily fluid and rendered down into gory mulch, save only for their skins, which are (I think) harvested for the purposes of being worn by the other aliens. If this sounds horrifying or shocking, understand that this entire process is filmed in the style of a Calvin Klein ad, wherein everything is muted, and characters not only do not speak, but do not act in anything but the most foreordained manner, walking blindly ahead into pools of translucent oil so as to be stripped for parts, never once endeavoring to escape or even struggling. That men would wish to sleep with Scarlett Johansson I can easily believe, but are they being mind controlled? Have their libidos completely overwritten their sense of self-preservation (or sight)? If you, lured into a creepy building by a sexy woman, found that the floor had been converted into a gelatinous substance filled with mummified corpses, would you wade into it with nary a glance in the hopes that it was nothing but foreplay? Would you maybe at least ask a question? Possible answers could be given to this fundamental connundrum, but none are offered, leaving us watching people acting in self-destructive ways, wondering what the hell the director is trying to say.

But then, Under the Skin is not a film interested in telling us anything. Entire sequences appear and disappear at random and for no purpose. At one point, Johansson finds herself on a remote beach in Scotland, speaking to a Czech surfer about why he has come all the way out here. He gives her vague answers about trying to get away from it all, and then runs off to try and rescue a couple who have become caught in a riptide trying to rescue their dog. The couple drown, the Czech man nearly dies saving them, their baby is left abandoned and dies of exposure, and nothing about this subject ever comes up again, save for the fact that we later hear a report on the radio that the people in question are missing, a report to which nobody reacts. Perhaps the film is attempting to show us that Johansson's character is learning from the example of humanity around her, but if so, the lesson she learns is entirely opaque to me, as is the effect of every other thing that happens in the movie. She seduces a man with severe facial deformities. Why? We do not know. She strips the clothes from another woman brought to her by a man on a motorcycle. Why? We do not know. She is dragged unwillingly into a nightclub, attempts to escape, then changes her mind and seduces a patron, taking him back to the skinning factory where he obediently drowns himself like all the others. Why? How the hell should I know? Every action taken by every character in this film has zero context to it, such that when the film starts having characters act out of character, we barely even notice, as nothing the characters have done up to this point has made the slightest sense. It was forty-five minutes into Johansson's spirited rebellion against her alien masters before I even noticed that she was rebelling at all. You can't replace nonsensical bullshit devoid of context with other nonsensical bullshit devoid of context and then expect the audience to tell the difference.

And maybe it's me. Maybe I would have caught on earlier, except that my brain was busy trying to chisel its way out of my skull in a desperate attempt to escape the soul-devouring boredom that is sitting in the theater, watching this film. I've seen and enjoyed plenty of slow movies, including sci-fi and alien ones, from Stanley Kubrick's masterful "2001" to David Bowie's semi-sensical "The Man who Fell to Earth" to Andrei Tarkovsky's haunting, Soviet-era masterpiece, "Solaris". But those films were slow because the filmmakers wished to give the audience time to settle on images, or moods, or subconscious conjurations, so as to properly craft the experience that they were endeavoring to present. This film, on the other hand, is simply boring as paste, and tries to disguise this fact by showing us a lens flare for three and a half minutes while atonal electronic feedback is playing, perhaps in the hopes that if they drive the audience mad with disinterest, someone will mistake their film for avant-guard. Addicted to images stolen from better films, the movie takes six times longer to do every single thing than it has to, showing us, for instance, the process of Johannson walking towards a cabin (30 seconds), then staring at the door to the cabin (30 seconds), then the sign that tells us that the cabin is there for hikers to use (30 seconds), then her opening the door and walking inside (25 seconds), then the interior of the cabin as she selects where she wishes to lay down (45 more seconds), all of which is in the film so that the next morning she can leave the cabin (35 seconds-oh-GOD-MAKE-IT-STOP-I'LL-TELL-YOU-WHERE-THE-BODIES-ARE-BURIED-JUST-MAKE-IT-STOP!!!!!!!) A friend of mine, with whom I saw this film, asked me midway through to make her a solemn promise that this movie would, at some point, actually end, and that we would then be able to leave the theater. I'm a veteran at this sort of thing by now, dear readers, but I must confess, that by the time a seemingly major subplot of the film (a mysterious man on a motorcycle pursuing Johansson), one that had occupied 15 minutes of screen-time, resolved itself with a two minute, unbroken shot of the man slowly turning a complete circle while standing in a snowfield... I began to have my doubts.

Final thoughts:   If The Railway Man, last week's abysmal failure, was, as I described it, a "catastrophically bad film", then Under the Skin is the cinematic equivalent to a Biblical plague, a desolate, empty, thought-siphoning vacuity of a film that would be laughably bad if the experience of watching it were not so unremittingly unpleasant. Director Johnathan Glazer, whose debut film was the brilliantly sleazy Sexy Beast, has supposedly been laboring on this film for nearly a full decade, and based on the result, I'd say this shows every sign of a project that simply ran away from him, until finally he was forced to give up and release it without the coherent story that he was unable to provide it. I know that this review stands in stark contrast to the rave, universal acclaim that this movie is in the process of generating from film critics on either side of the pond, (Britain's Independent and Daily Express, and America's Hollywood Reporter providing lone voices of sanity amidst it all), but I do not care. I recognize that my own opinion is fallible, particularly on something as subjective as a movie, but this is plainly a case of bandwagonning hacks being unable to distinguish between the cerebral and the simpering. This is not a "deep" film, nor a "complex" one, nor a "masterpiece" nor a "work of genius". This film is a fraud, perpetrated against moviewatchers and abetted by professional critics, in the hopes that nobody will notice just how bad it actually is. And those critics (I have made a list) who had the bald-faced temerity to compare this movie to Cloud Atlas of all things should be driven from their offices with a horsewhip.

I went into this movie to see if Scarlett Johansson, an actress I've had problems with before, could act in a serious role. Unfortunately, I still don't know the answer, as no serious role was ever permitted to even come close to this movie.

Final Score:  2/10

1 comment:

  1. I'm still not entirely sure that we actually *left* the theater.... It could still be there, lurking on the other side of this dream-facsimile we think is reality, waiting for us to snap back to its horrible, endless clutches.

    I also would like to officially go on record with The Feminist Read:


    Hot, strong women who have the gall to initiate contact with/make direct sexual advances against strange men are actually blood-sucking monsters there to just use men for their own ends. If they were to regain their feminine-humanity, they would become simpering, wilting flowers, wandering vacantly through life waiting for a man to take them under their wing, ultimately fated to be beaten and raped in the woods and left in a gasoline fire to burn in the snow.

    As is proper.


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