My Voyage to Italy will resume this weekend after my Greek midterm is out of the way. For now, we interrupt your regularly scheduled study abroad blog for a review of a movie I saw over spring break.
There's an old maxim everyone who's ever gone through film or screenwriting school knows well: "Show, don't tell." Film has the distinction among storytelling media of being able to combine auditory and visual components to tell a story and communicate ideas. Budding young screenwriters are cautioned not to use dialogue to make a point when an image could achieve the same effect faster; since most movies don't run more than 2 hours longs, every frame is valuable space for storytelling. Dialogue, therefore, shouldn't be wasted on explaining things that an astute viewer could figure out from a well-crafted image.
It's with all this in mind that I'm tempted to call Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin a masterpiece.
For the uninitiated: this is a horror movie qua high art, a science fiction abstraction of striking imagery and unnerving music. An alien in Scarlett Johansson's body arrives on earth and begins prowling the Scottish countryside in an unmarked white van, stopping Scotsmen unawares to ask for directions and, in some cases, seduce them back to an abandoned shed in the countryside where the floor swallows them up quicksand-style. If that premise sounds strange, well, that's not even the half of it.
Glazer is taking a huge risk with this film: he eschews dialogue almost entirely, preferring to let the images onscreen tell the story. There isn't precisely a plot to speak of; what the film gives us instead is an alien's-eye view of arriving in a foreign land populated by strange species. Nothing is explained to us, but nothing needs to be. The point of this film isn't to uncover the mysteries of Johansson's alien—indeed, the film would be far less effective as sci-fi horror if we ever learned what exactly is going on in those country shed encounters—but rather to tell the story of an alien seductress becoming gradually seduced by the humans she preys upon.
In spite of (or perhaps because of?) the sparse dialogue, the character development here is easy enough to catch on to. Since we're more or less following Johansson around from her perspective, it makes sense to craft a story around her actions and interactions. Johansson deserves props for being able to convey the slow evolution of her character in a way befitting an alien: through protracted, deliberate movements reminiscent of a baby attempting to walk for the first time, and through a bare minimum of spoken English (the eerie opening montage includes a few sound bytes of a woman's voice muttering English syllables, a Rosetta Stone exercise tailor-made for extraterrestrials).
Much of the movie consists of hidden-camera footage of everyday Glasgow as filmed from miniature cameras in Johansson's van. These clips place the viewer directly in the alien's shoes, making it as though we're experiencing Glasgow after having touched down there from another galaxy. (NB: Glazer includes a lot of footage of nonactors interacting with Johansson on the street; evidently, most Scots can't recognize her when she's wearing a black wig and fur coat. Men with larger roles to play in the film were cast separately, but still from a pool of non-actors so as to lend an uncanny aura to the film.)
The other set of images are of a more abstract, artsier sort. The opening montage, depicting (more or less, as far as we can tell) the alien's initial contact on earth, has already evoked Kubrick comparisons. About 2/3s of the way through the film, there's a fantastic cake-eating scene destined to go down as one of my favorite scenes of any movie this year. And, without giving anything away, the final ten minutes contain some of the most extraordinary photography I've ever seen on the big screen. Glazer lets the images speak for themselves; he's provoking his audience to take a leap of faith and actually think about what they're watching, and that is something very commendable indeed.
Under the Skin is certainly not going to float everyone's boat. Even I am hesitant to say I liked it because, as excellently directed as it is, abstract sci-fi horror isn't really my thing. What we're supposed to take away from the film isn't clear to me either—is this just another story of a stranger in a strange land, is there some sort of metaphorical quality about it all? What I can say with certainty is that Glazer's daring filmmaking, oddly, works. Even though its parts may be totally off-the-wall bizarre (and always equally unsettling), there's nothing really random about Glazer's choice in sounds and images. There's not an extraneous frame to be found here—everything is working together in perfect, albeit disturbing, harmony. As far as movies about aliens go, Under the Skin succeeds brilliantly in believably portraying how an intergalactic visitor might react to life on earth.
Under the Skin opens in America in April. Consider yourselves warned.