Jonathan Glazer's atmospheric, visually arresting abstraction stars Scarlett Johansson as a seductive alien who prowls the streets of Glasgow in search of prey: unsuspecting men who fall under her spell, only to be consumed by a strange liquid pool.
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What happens when you take a camp premise seriously?
I once saw a production of a musical adaptation of Dracula that did that. Dracula’s leitmotif was sombre and doomy, Van Helsing sang forcefully about the urgency of combatting “the children of Satan” – it was all played utterly straight. And, of course, it was unintentionally very funny. Bram Stoker’s original novel is wonderful, but it’s also lurid and outlandish right from the get-go, and you have to acknowledge that, and not pretend that you can treat it as straight melodrama, or you’ll wind up with something very silly indeed.
The question came to my mind again when I recently went to see “Under the Skin,” the Scottish science fiction fable from director Jonathan Glazer starring Scarlett Johansson. The premise of the film: Johansson is an alien life form whose task it is to seduce solitary human males to their dooms. She drives around Glasgow in a white van, asking directions of the men she passes and then offering them a lift. When they get in, she flirtily chats with them and ultimately invites them back to a secluded cabin, whose interior I will not describe because it is one of the signature horrors of the film.
This is, as I say, a pretty campy premise – actually, the seductress picking up men in her white van is worse, a low-budget porn premise. And I worried: won’t the characters in the film understand that? If they do, won’t that spoil it for the rest of us? And if they don’t, won’t that spoil it worse, by making them seem idiots?
I went in hoping, in fact, that the film would be cleverly conscious of its own campiness, and thereby transcend it – that it would be an updating of “Liquid Sky,” the early ’80s cult classic. There are some obvious points of comparison, after all. Both films are about female visitors to a strange and hostile city. Both films identify sex with violence and death, both reverse the trope of male predation and female victimhood, and both show us that reversal from the female perspective. And both involve aliens with a taste for human flesh, albeit in the case of “Liquid Sky” the woman is not herself the alien – she just has aliens living on her roof.
“Liquid Sky” was self-conscious – but no less-affecting for that. It’s a highly idiosyncratic nightmare portrait of New York at a certain point in time, a lot more distinctive and convincing than, say, “Escape From New York” if not nearly as coolly accomplished as, say, “After Hours.” And, taken seriously, it has something real to say about the despair of that sexual moment as well:
So I was taught that I should come to New York, become an independent woman. And my prince would come, and he would be an agent, and he would get me a role, and I would make my living waiting on tables. I would wait – till thirty, till forty, till fifty. And I was taught that to be an actress, one should be fashionable, and to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful, and I kill with my c—. Isn’t it fashionable? Come on, who’s next? I’ll take lessons. How to get into show business: be nice to your professor. Be nice to your agent. Be nice to your audience, be nice. How to be a woman: want them when I want you. How to be free and equal: f— women instead of men, and you’ll discover a whole kingdom of freedom. Men won’t step on you anymore, women will. So come on, who’s next? Who wants to teach me? Come on, teach me. Are you afraid? You’re right, because they’re all dead. All my teachers.
That sure ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s not “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” either. It’s something that has gone through camp and come out the other side, into something like sincerity. Is that what “Under the Skin” aimed to do?
As it turns out, “Under the Skin” does almost the opposite. It does an exceptionally good job of threading the narrow eye of the needle that avoids camp entirely, in spite of its outlandishly camp premise. It does this by emphatically identifying us with Johansson’s alien perspective.
We first glimpse Johansson when she receives her skin, from what appears to be the corpse of the human she’s modeled on (it’s a bit vague what’s precisely going on, but the emotional tone is clear). But this skin is provided her by a male handler, a kind of evil Power Ranger, complete with dopey motorbike. He’s effectively her pimp – so from the beginning, we’ve avoided identifying Johansson with a kind of male horror fantasy of female sexuality. And we’ve also avoided the porn fantasy by showing us the existence of a power structure of some kind behind that fantasy’s enactment.
Then we travel around with Johansson in her white van, observing as she does – and the crowded streets are shot in such a way that we never get a sense of purpose to any of the activity we observe. Johansson’s eyes flit about, looking for prospects; she isn’t trying to understand what these creatures are doing, and so we never understand. They’re just a mass of humanity, a herd from which she culls a gullible few.
Moreover, we’re in Glasgow, and the male citizens of Glasgow speak in an almost impenetrable accent, while Johansson’s accent is vaguely London – the kind of accent someone might learn to play a British character in a not-very-good film. She’s not trying to fit in; she’s barely trying to pass. She speaks what sounds like a script, and barely varies it; when she picks up a severely deformed man, she shows no sign of noticing any difference from her other marks. If she weren’t so good-looking, there’s no way she’d pass the Turing Test. And yet she’s the only one we can reliably comprehend.
All of these factors help us forget the camp absurdity of the premise, which no longer feels like it is even terribly important. It’s certainly never explained at all; the movie seems completely uninterested in motive. It’s just a given that this is her social role, and the movie is interested in what it’s like to be her.
But who is she? Why invent this person, and ask us to spend time with her? About half an hour in, after an exceptionally horrific scene of callousness on Johansson’s part, where she kills an unequivocally good person and leaves another innocent to die without even noticing, I began to wonder what this film meant on a metaphoric level. It didn’t seem to be interested in satirizing the sexual dynamics of contemporary Scotland, not in any direct way.
And then Johansson’s character changed, abruptly. She felt pity on one of her victims, and allowed him to escape, and as a consequence became completely unmoored from herself. She wandered in a daze, eventually to be taken under the wing of a sympathetic (and strangely incurious) Scottish man, before fleeing him in turn and winding up the victim of yet another man, one as one-dimensionally predatory as she had been.
What did this reversal mean, this reversion to female victimhood that seemed to flow inexorably from the alien’s minimal concession to humanity? There was something dark and sad being said here, something that harkened back to the junkie-eat-junkie landscape of “Liquid Sky,” where our protagonist, primed to be a perfect victim, discovers new powers of predation, and gets no satisfaction or release from them. Johansson seemed to me to be representing yet another new womanhood, not the worn-out androgene of 1982, but something lush and overtly feminine, but as scripted, anhedonic and cold as the men who follow seduction guides. She has no history that brought her to this state – it’s not a choice, but a role she is given by others. But having learned that role, she’s lost and helpless when first she tries to be human. That’s a heck of an abyss to find at the bottom of a movie with such a camp premise.
But if stare into a camp premise long enough, it seems, eventually it will stare back at you.
List, List, O List: a Premature 2014 Movie Rundown
Any attempt on my part to assess the year in film is bound to be inadequate, because there are just too many films I know I ought to see that I haven’t seen yet. Moreover, that list of “oughts” has already been shaped by the reactions of other critics; it’s already too late for the joy of discovery that I felt, say, attending a screening of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” back in January, before everyone had heralded Ana Lily Amirpour’s Persian vampire noir western as the hot new thing. And anyway, films are largely incomparable across genres. Which was a “better” film, “Boyhood” or “The LEGO Movie?” It’s kind of a silly question – they aren’t trying to do anything remotely comparable.
Nonetheless: posts must be blogged. So: let’s start with the critical consensus. The nice folks at Metacritic have compiled a meta-list, combining the views of 137 different critics on what they think are the top ten films of the year, for a meta-list of 20 films. Herewith:
1. “Boyhood.” My feelings about the film tracked very closely with Eve Tushnet’s. I admire the experiment, and I was drawn in deeply during the first hour. But in the last hour I found myself far more interested in the parents than in the titular boy, which to me feels like the film didn’t achieve all that it set out to do.
2. “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I am a great admirer of Richard Linklater’s work, which is why I was surprised that I didn’t respond to “Boyhood” with raptures. Wes Anderson I am much more ambivalent about. But “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was for me a sheer delight from end to end, and may even have become my favorite Anderson film, because for once I felt his fussiness was fully justified by the film’s subject and setting. Leon Hadar’s thoughts on the film are also very worth reading.
3. “Under the Skin.” I posted my reactions to this creepy Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flick here. Its highly original vision has definitely stuck with me. Rent it.
4. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” I posted my thoughts on “Birdman” here. I think it’s a tour-de-force.
5. “Selma.” A film I have not yet seen, and plan to, though I fear I won’t like it. I don’t tend to like pious movies, regardless of the object of piety, and I fear this will be one.
6. “Whiplash.” I wrote up my thoughts on Damien Chazelle’s film here, and then followed up with additional thoughts here, but I continue to chew on it. “Whiplash” is very worth seeing, but it irritated me, and I wonder whether that reaction says more about me than it does about the film.
7. “Ida.” Near the top of my list of films I need to see.
8. “Gone Girl.” Amazingly, I still haven’t seen this film. I begin to suspect I’m avoiding it, and I’m not entirely sure why.
8. “Inherent Vice.” I’m only falling more in love with P.T. Anderson with time, and am very eager to see his latest.
10. “Nightcrawler.” I find myself away from the pack on this one. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom seemed like he had dropped to earth from Mars in the first frame. What, I wondered, did he do the day before the film began? The month before that? The year before that? I found no really plausible answer to these sorts of questions. Nor did I buy this young man’s sudden transformation from bizarre recluse to a ruthlessly effective manipulator of other people. The film presents itself as a dark satire – I kept thinking it was trying to be a noir-esque, indie-scale “Network” – but I never felt like the satire connected with anything terribly specific.
11. “Mr. Turner.” Another one near the top of my list of films to see. Mike Leigh is a wonderful filmmaker, and I specifically adored his last foray into biopic.
12. “Force Majeure.” I haven’t seen it yet, but hope to do so.
13. “Goodbye to Language.” Haven’t seen it yet, clearly need to – it’s actually somewhat relevant to a script I’ve written.
14. “The Immigrant.” Jeepers, I haven’t seen this one yet either – and this one wasn’t even on my list of want-to-sees. From the description, the film sounds like an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, which makes me want to see it to see if that’s how it plays on-screen.
14. “Foxcatcher.” I wrote up my thoughts here – definitely an intriguing film, worth seeing for three notable performances.
16. “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I described “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” as a “Jarmusch-esque” vampire flick without having seen Jim Jarmusch’s own vampire flick. I suppose I have to find out which is more Jarmusch-esque: the actual Jarmusch or the homage? In any event, Eve Tushnet’s always-worthwhile thoughts can be found here.
17. “Two Days, One Night.” I am extremely eager to see this film, largely because I read Eve Tushnet’s review.
17. “The LEGO Movie.” My thoughts on this interlocking brick system of a movie can be found here. A much, much better film than it needed to be.
17. “Snowpiercer.” This extremely stylish and idiosyncratic action-flick-cum-allegory of global inequality was far darker than I had expected. Indeed, inasmuch as it has a clear politics, those politics are almost pure anarchist rage. Far from presenting a brief for revolution, the film paints a deeply bleak and pessimistic picture of the choices before humanity in an age of scarcity driven by ecological impoverishment.
20. “Citizenfour.” Another film I need to see, but that I expect not to be enraptured by as so many have been.
So I’ve only seen 9 out of 20 of the films that comprise the aggregated “critics’ picks” list. Not a particularly impressive showing – though I expect to improve upon it substantially over the next month or so.
Meanwhile, what’s missing from this meta-list in terms of my personal faves of the year? And what else am I eager to see that I haven’t gotten to yet?
Not necessarily films that I would put on any kind of “Top 10” list, but all worth renting, are: “Frank,” “Listen Up Philip,” (reviewed here), and “The One I Love.” All extremely well-written films, and all films that would work just fine on a small screen. Films about prickly, difficult male artists (a theme of the year), and about the cold war between the sexes. And two doses of Elizabeth Moss to boot.
What am I eager to see? Apart from those mentioned above, I’d add “Wild,” “The Babadook,” “The Overnighters,” “Big Eyes,” “Leviathan,” and “A Most Violent Year,” plus (from stuff I missed from earlier in the year) “Gloria,” “Calvary,” “The Dog,” “The Blue Room,” and “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”
The 2000 novel Under the Skin by Michel Faber tells the story of a female alien called Isserley. We meet her living on a remote Scottish farm from where she takes regular road trips looking for single men. The purpose of these trips transpires to be predatory; she is hunting humans to farm for her fellow alien beings.
Michel Faber has an interesting background. According to Wikipedia:
Faber was born in The Hague, Netherlands. He and his parents emigrated to Australia in 1967. He attended primary and secondary school in the Melbourne suburbs of Boronia and Bayswater, then attended the University of Melbourne, studying Dutch, Philosophy, Rhetoric, English Language (a course involving translation and criticism of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts) and English Literature. He graduated in 1980. He worked as a cleaner and at various other casual jobs, before training as a nurse at Marrickville and Western Suburbs hospitals in Sydney. He nursed until the mid-1990s. In 1993 he, his second wife and family emigrated to Scotland.
In 2014 the novel was adapted into a film by the director Jonathan Glazer. Again, according to Wikipedia, “Jonathan Glazer (born 26 March 1965) is an English filmmaker, whose directing work includes feature films, music videos and advertisements. . . [He] was born into a Jewish family, and studied in a Jewish school.” Before even considering anything about the novel or the film, it seems noteworthy that the backgrounds of the author and the director together roughly recapitulate a fair amount of the comings and goings of the people of the European continent over the last few centuries. In Faber’s case, a Dutchman who moves to the once colonial Australian continent, then to Scotland on the edge of Europe; and in Glazer’s case, a descendent of Jewish immigrants to Europe, living in England.
In the novel, Isserley lives on a remote Scottish farm and drives around looking for victims to entice with the prospect of sex. Once they are in the passenger seat of her specially adapted car, hidden syringes inject them with a fast working drug that renders them unconscious. Isserley then takes them to the farm where they are kept in an underground compound and essentially factory farmed. It turns out that human meat is an expensive delicacy on Isserley’s home planet, and the human victims are fattened hideously before they are culled.
The book weaves together so many potent strands, in an entirely understated way, that it achieves a wholly disconcerting effect. A disturbing food chain is revealed, with the lone men’s hunger for sex leading them to become meat for the expensive tastes of Isserley’s fellow extra-terrestrials. Gender, sexuality, and animal rights mingle together in ways that do nothing to validate the typical hubris of Homo sapiens. Due to the way that the plot is slowly revealed to the reader the book manages to elicit sympathy for the human victims of Isserley, not because they are human but despite it. Isserley appears to be cruel and hubristic and that is because she behaves as humans behave. The book shifts human beings one rung down the food ladder and suddenly the ethics of the whole process appear to be appalling and inexcusable.
When Jonathan Glazer came to adapt the book into a film, he was drawn to the notion of seeing the world through alien eyes: “I suppose I must have that alien thing in me to start with. Yeah. Probably. I do feel outside. Not entirely, but I do. I’ve had that about me since quite a young age I think.” Having a Jewish identity, Glazer had a perfect opportunity to use the story of an alien in Scotland to make a few didactic points. But instead of doing so, he chose to hone down the narrative of the book to its barest essentials and produce a work that is remarkably ambiguous, unsettling, and bold.
The film has been compared to the work of Kubrick, and it’s a comparison that bears fruit. Just as with Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, Glazer’s film of Under the Skin sees a Jewish director taking a book by an ethnic European author and stripping away anything in the narrative that isn’t integral to a filmic rendition. In the film of The Shining, Kubrick left out all of Jack Torrence’s back story, and he simplified the narrative so that the sinister weight of the Overlook Hotel itself became the overriding threat. The sense of claustrophobia and isolation that resulted from these directorial decisions made the film at least as successful as the book, if not more so.
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
In Under the Skin, Glazer transposes the setting to Glasgow and focuses entirely on the girl’s (she is unnamed in the film) efforts at hooking unsuspecting men. Throughout, he is intent on making the mundane look strange: alien, in fact. To this end, he pulls an unlikely stunt. Much of the filming involving Scarlet Johanssen driving around Glasgow features passersby who do not know that they are being filmed. This hidden camera, verite style of filming has the odd effect of making the whole thing feel hyper real, almost stylized. This is probably because we have become so used to a particular syntax of film making, involving rapid edits and orthodox camera angles, that any deviation from the norm has the appearance of a deliberate stylistic statement.
All of the narrative that described the farmed humans and their place in an off-planet economy of luxury meat has been removed. Pretty much all that’s left is the girl’s predatory excursions around Glasgow. But Glazer actually adds another touch because when the girl brings her victims back to her house the mise-en-scène shifts to a blank, abstracted space, and the men sink into a black, viscous liquid. This scenario is repeated several times in the film and it becomes apparent that this is a stand in for the farming of the men in the book. Somehow, they are supposed to sink into the liquid and become fattened before their flesh is extracted. But this is all shown in a highly stylized way; the significance seems to rest in the liminal non-space that they find themselves in. In some undefined way, it appears to be an in-between space connecting our world with that of the aliens.
Interestingly, the aesthetic design of this liminal place has recently been appropriated wholesale by the Netflix series, Stranger Things. The entire storyline of Stranger Things rests on the existence of this sinister, parallel dimension which the series designates as the “upside down.” When a young boy, Will, goes missing, his friends discover that he has been abducted by a faceless monster who resides in the upside down, but who has gained ingress to this world by virtue of some secret government experiment that has gone wrong. The monster is tempted into our world by the smell of blood. He hunts and then returns to the upside down with his captured prey. What exactly he does with them isn’t entirely clear; it seems likely that the monster is using human bodies as nourishment for larvae.
It is surely notable that this identically rendered black space, devoid of localized detail, becomes in both stories a place where alien beings treat humans as meat. And the significance of this cannot be overstated because, in both cases, the suggestion is that these liminal non-places are areas of ingress for non-human entities who have managed to intersect with our reality. In other words, they are numinous places.
So, what does it mean for these numinous places to be inhabited by non-human entities who farm humans? Certainly anyone who associates the numinous with vague feelings of spiritual uplift will be baffled by this line of thinking. But Rudolf Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy clearly showed that the numinous was characterized not only by being “wholly other” but also by being terrifying. So it is entirely reasonable to read these strange non-spaces in both Under the Skin and Stranger Things as gesturing towards the numinous.
In fact, there is an artistic precursor for this decontextualized, dark space where humans are consumed. Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son is a gruesome depiction of the myth originally associated with the Greek Titan, Cronus. Cronus overthrew his father Uranus and then learned that he too would be overthrown by one of his sons. In order to prevent this, he ate each of his children after birth. When his sixth child, Zeus, was born, the mother secretly hid him and gave to Cronus the Omphalos stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, and Cronus ate that, mistakenly taking it for his son. Zeus was thus able to grow to adulthood and to succeed his father.
In Goya’s depiction of the myth, Saturn is a monstrous figure, wild eyed and long haired. In fact, he looks almost inhuman, an impression further suggested by his peculiar posture. The vivid red of his son’s blood is the only colorful element here and this serves to draw attention to the unnatural horror of Saturn’s infantophagy. But all around Saturn there is blackness, a blank space of colorless void, seeming to isolate his action as belonging to timeless myth. And, of course, Saturn was seeking to avoid the inevitable consequence of time, that is, the succession of the child who takes the place of the father. Many of Goya’s so-called black paintings, painted when Goya was in his sixties, were preoccupied with death but Saturn has a peculiar power all its own.
Roughly contemporary with Goya, the Romantic treatment of the sublime in painting saw the emergence of landscape work that situated the human figure before an immense and overwhelming background of natural features. The progression of this tendency led to the proto-abstraction of Turner’s later works and ultimately to the possibility of complete abstraction from form of the sort that Rothko specialized in. This total abstraction from form renders possible an entirely virtual sense of the sublime, one that is severed from even a notional connection with landscape. This type of painting is often celebrated for providing a secular, humanist form of spirituality. For now, it’s enough to note that the key characteristic is a blankness, a vacuity of content that allows for a universal appreciation, unencumbered as it is by any local color. That this aesthetic discovery of the virtual sublime coincided with the rise of cinema and TV is probably not coincidental. Our networked societies now seem to be entirely predicated on rootless, transient, mutually interchangeable “citizens.”
Returning now to Scotland, Glazer’s positioning of the predatory alien girl in a non-space of black void can be seen to be part of a deeper aesthetic yearning. This yearning can roughly be said to encompass the artist’s urge to experience the numinous, and his subsequent sense of cosmic horror when he realizes that the gods have receded from the world. There is a sense that the human is not the highest form of life, hence the presumption of non-human predators who exist above us in the food chain, but there is a dark, black mystery regarding how we should try to contextualize these beings. And this is because these entities are presumed to exist in a trans-spatial otherworld, a parallel universe that somehow seems to coexist with this one. What is missing here is a sense that these numinous creatures might emerge naturally from the landscape; that they might be gods of a particular place.
What Glazer has succeeded in doing is interpreting Faber’s novel in such a way that he foregrounds the numinous sense of the “wholly other” co-existing with mundane reality. But, ultimately, the setting of Scotland (for both the book and the film) comes to seem somewhat arbitrary, and presumably this is why Glazer was able to switch the location from the rural isolation of a deserted farm to the busy city of Glasgow without damaging the narrative or thematic content. The positing of a numinous location wherein something inexplicably alien might occur is an instinctive reaction against the oppressive mundanity of a postmodern, secular, shopping-and-fucking society. The aesthetic choices made in the film help to make this clearer. But this reaction itself sets up a mirror image of that society, in that the form of the numinous that it articulates is mobile, decontextualized (like the ubiquitous shopping mall), and blank. The void space wherein humans are culled is somewhat like a Rothko painting in that it conveys a sense of the timeless but, again like a Rothko, it lacks local character, it implies universal applicability, and it could be located anywhere.
When Cronus was defeated in his infanticidal selfishness it was because he was tricked with the Omphalos stone. Zeus grew to adulthood and forced Cronus to vomit up the Omphalos stone and the children he had eaten. The Omphalos then became a marker for the center of the world and a tool for communication between the gods and man. And it is this combination that marks out the truly numinous: the particular sacred place and the presence there of local gods.
There seems to be developing a new notion that the study of sacred landscape, or psychogeography, is a discipline that can be applied to any place, and that landscape has become a generic term that can be applied anywhere. This perspective attempts to understand the numinous but it can only ever half glimpse it out of the corner of the eye because it is not attached necessarily to this particular place. Any understanding of the numinous as an easily translatable tabula rasa must inevitably miss the mark. Whilst it is admirable to attempt to grasp the nature of the numinous in this way, as a means of explaining the chaos of post modernity, it can ultimately do no more that hold up a virtual mirror to that chaos, replacing the rootless angst of the secular individual with the rootless commiseration of sacred universalism. This mirror is the upside down.
Under the Skin manages to make a really uncanny gesture towards the numinous, but it is a numinous that is articulated through the human intellect. As such, it carries with it too many of the presuppositions of the artists responsible for its articulation. For the genuinely numinous to appear it will be necessary for us to reengage with the necessity of establishing a sacred center. And it will be necessary to understand that this particular place is the landscape through which the gods will emerge. Until we are able to do that, our gods will remain virtual.
We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.Movie ReviewWhen she's alone, she seems to be staring blankly ahead, but she's scanning the streets for the likely sort. They shouldn't have anyone with them or look like they're going any place in a hurry. Often, as she cruises slowly by in her nondescript white van, she can catch a glint in his eye that tells her that this one might be a prime candidate. It's an empty glaze, of sorts. A randomness.
That's when she pulls to the curb.
That's also when she seems to come fully to life. She knows her job. The pretty human girl with dark hair, a full figure and a ready smile. She rolls down the window and leans over. And the lonely guy always draws near.
She needs directions, she says, or she's having car trouble, or she just got turned around in this big strange Scottish town. Are you alone? Going someplace? Is anyone waiting for you? Perhaps you could hop in the van and show me the way?
His face lights up. He thinks he's hit it lucky. She's a knock-out, after all. Wait till he tells his friends about this later!
Later, of course, never comes. She knows her job.
My, you're a cutie. What strong hands you have. Look at those eyes. Do you have a girlfriend? Do you fancy a drink? Thank you so much for your help. My place is just up there if you want to step in for a spell.
It's pretty dark inside. She walks slowly in front of him. Just enough light for him to see that this beautiful woman is piece-by-piece shedding her clothes.
He's hers now.
She dresses and goes back to the van. Staring vacantly ahead. Doing this job that she knows so well.
Lately, however, she's been … feeling something. It's a niggling little emotion that she can't quite define. She'll catch her own blank stare in the van's mirror. And she'll stop to look at her strange human face for just a moment.Positive ElementsAs that undefined and never spoken-about feeling continues to grow in this unnamed alien, we see it shift her actions in subtle ways. The most obvious veer from her normal routine happens when she encounters a young man deformed by neurofibromatosis. She shows him a kindness—letting him touch a woman's face for what is apparently the first time in his life. She even sets him free later, unlike all those other men.
After that, this woman who's not a woman walks away from her assigned job and wanders aimlessly—repeatedly impacted by the random acts of kindness shown her as different humans offer her help or express concern for her. A man takes her in, giving her a coat, shelter and food.
We also witness a man running to the aid of a couple being pulled out to sea by a strong riptide.Spiritual ContentSexual ContentSomewhat shrouded by deep shadows, we see several people fully nude in a number of scenes. The naked alien removes the clothes from a female corpse and dresses herself. She examines her naked form in front of a full-length mirror. We see the interplanetary interloper kissing and caressing a man; neither are wearing clothes on their lower bodies. (His explicit sexual act is halted by her alien incomprehension of what he's doing.)
A man runs naked through a field at night. (He's seen from the front and back.) Several men are drawn into the aliens' dark lair, where she draws them into a deep, glossy pool of sorts. Walking backwards, either in panties and a bra or completely nude, she leads the men into her trap, and we watch them sink into the black "floor" until they disappear. (The men have removed every stitch of clothing by this point.)Recommended ResourceA Chicken's Guide to Talking Turkey With Your Kids About SexKevin LemanEven the bravest parents feel timid about discussing sex with their 8- to 14-year-olds! This resource offers reassuring, humorous, real-life anecdotes along with reliable information to help you with this challenging task.Buy NowViolent ContentThe camera eventually shows us what happens inside that pool, or under that floor, whichever way you want to look at it: Submerged in some strange liquid, we see all the internal substance of a man being sucked away leaving only an empty skin. A stream of what appears to be blood and ground-up organs are sucked through a small slot.
The aforementioned husband and wife who are struggling in the strong ocean undertow drown, while the swimmer who tries to save them is thumped on the head with a large rock by the alien predator and dragged away. The couples' infant is left screaming, alone on the beach.
The alien woman is attacked by a human rapist. He throws her down and tears off pieces of her clothing. In the process he rips open her skin—revealing onyx-colored alien epidermis beneath. Startled, he runs away—then returns to douse her with fuel and set her aflame.
A man carries a female corpse up from a ravine.Crude or Profane LanguageNone. (At least not that will be immediately obvious to American ears.)Drug and Alcohol ContentSeveral people smoke cigarettes.Other Negative ElementsWhen the alien tries to eat human food, she gags and spits it back out on the plate.ConclusionScarlett Johansson is the bait. In oh so many ways.
In Under the Skin's deliberately opaque and expressionistically filmed storyline (loosely based on Michel Faber's 2000 novel) the actress plays an alien who dons a human persona. In black wig and blood-red lipstick this pretty cosmic spinner lures unsuspecting men on the streets of Glasgow. The lonelier souls end up in her deadly pool where they're harvested for their potential as food stuffs.
Reports also circulated, however, that in the course of filming, Johansson drew a number of unwitting non-actors into her movie web. The thick-accented and unsuspecting Jacks stepped into her van after she fed them a few ad-libbed lines in a British brogue. Some even then agreed to strip off their clothes to walk into that glossy pool.
Now that the film's finished and available for viewing, Johansson is surely still the main enticement that will draw the lion's share of moviegoers to see this odd sci-fi abstraction. And most will likely leave an hour and a half later feeling just as glazed-over and lost as those naked Scotsmen look onscreen.
So I will only say this once for all you Scarlett fans: This is not a Captain America movie.
This is a slow, surreal dreamscape composed of abstract visuals, long, unmoving close-ups and intrusive images of shadow-shrouded nakedness. It's the kind of project that hard-core film critics and jaded English Lit majors seem to love because they can assign nearly any meaning they want to what they've seen onscreen.
_Is it a metaphorical meditation on loneliness?
A portrait of outcasts and alienation?
A study of the human condition as contrasted with an alien foil?
A violent gender reversal of the modern rape culture?
A cautionary examination of woman as both sexual predator and prey?_
But it's definitely all about the bait.Pro-social ContentObjectionable ContentSummary AdvisoryPlot SummaryChristian BeliefsOther Belief SystemsAuthority RolesProfanity/ViolenceKissing/Sex/HomosexualityDiscussion TopicsAdditional Comments/NotesEpisode Reviews]]>
Wknd Box Office: The Other Woman, Walking With the Enemy, Brick Mansions, The Quiet Ones, Under the Skin
Blog Posts Movie Reviews
Under the Skin“: I had mixed feelings about this movie. I mostly hated it because it is long, slow, boring, pointless, and extremely pretentious beyond belief. While I mildly liked the artful way in which the movie was shot and some of the avant-garde characteristics of it, those few and relatively tiny positive attributes do not override how horrible and how much of a waste of time this movie is. You’ll feel like you were robbed by a time bandit. Also, it had enough scenes of pointless male frontal nudity to last me a lifetime.
Scarlett Johansson plays an outer space creature who has come to Edinburgh, Scotland, apparently to target and kill men. She drives around town in a van, asking various men (including a man with a disfigured face) for directions, then entices them to come into her van. After that, she takes them to an apartment where she leads them into a sea of goo, where they cannot escape and ultimately die. She also murders a man on a seashore who tries to rescue a father who has been trying to rescue his son who went into the water to rescue his dog. She kills this man by hitting his head with a rock.
It’s like the worst “Twilight Zone” episode you could possibly imagine times 1,000 on steroids (and I love the “Twilight Zone” but definitely not this). Just awful. But more of the anti-male crap they are offering up at the movies these days. Feminists will love this. But for everyone else, avoid like the plague.
FOUR MARXES PLUS FOUR BETTY FRIEDANS PLUS FOUR SHERYL SANDBERG LEAN-INS
Honoring the actual best in movie quality since 2015.
Boyhood · The Grand Budapest Hotel · Force Majeure · Foxcatcher · Only
Lovers Left Alive · Selma · The Tale of the Princess Kaguya · Two Days, One
Night · Under the Skin · Whiplash
* Best Director
* Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
* Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
* Xavier Dolan, Mommy
* Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
* Richard Linklater, Boyhood
It would seem nowadays as though anyone over the age of 30 with a vested
interest in the movies will proudly flaunt their membership in the "Cinema
is Dead and/or Dying" club. The refrains are common: sequelitis has ruined
Hollywood for original projects; even the biggest-name auteurs have to beg
tooth and nail outside of every Starbucks in LA for funding; and if you're
a minority group, good luck seeing yourself realistically represented on
the big screen. Film may be an art form, but the movies are a business, and
in the absence of studio executives who know how (or simply care) to
reconcile these two halves of the same coin, the most exciting, visionary,
and boundary-pushing works are pushed to the sidelines at best and kept out
of existence at worst.
Naturally, one might think that the solution to the lack of creativity and
representation in Hollywood would be to look to foreign markets and venues.
Indeed, there's plenty of exciting cinema happening in the rest of the
world, and this year alone has given us gems as accessible as Ida and as
obtuse as Winter Sleep. In the same breath that they condemn the Hollywood
studio system for the apparently irreparable damage its left on their
beloved medium, your friendly neighborhood film critic will find the room
to praise one or two of these foreign imports in the hopes of expanding
their readership's cinematic purview.
Why Scarlett Johansson's 'Ghost In The Shell' Remake Is Such A Failure
(”Under the Skin” is briefly mentioned in this.)
This review is largely vague about the plot of the movie outside a description of one scene’s location and a general description available in the trailers.
Hollywood tries to bank on attractive women in action movies. The most profitable franchise is the worst, as movie-making goes: Sony’s “Resident Evil,” starring Milla Jovovich. That franchise now has a worldwide audience such that this year’s installment made more than $300 million on a $40 million budget.
Other attempts in the same price range have been critical and box office failures. Studios and actresses keep trying and failing, but they’re not giving up. Indeed, the most bankable name in the genre, Scarlett Johansson, just got Paramount to risk $110 million on her new movie, “Ghost in the Shell.”
After the opening weekend, “Ghost in the Shell” is a significant failure for everyone involved: actress, studio, and the Japanese anime genre. It would need more than $200 million to break even in America and, after an opening weekend under $20 million, that’s not going to happen.
Its only hope to make money and a sequel is a shocking success in East Asia after flopping in North America, ending up somewhere under $60 million domestic. That strategy has never been tried with Johansson, but it’s fairly common for movies that do not involve stars.
A Little About ‘Ghost in the Shell’
“Ghost in the Shell” is a Japanese story from the 1990s about a woman who lives in a robotic body and does police work. She does not believe her ghost, her soul, suffices to make her human, and struggles with the existential question concerning her humanity and whether life is worth living in a near-future where everything is being taken over by technology.
In this world, technology continually creates new powers in bodies that feel more and more alien to their inhabitants. The sense of shame is obliterated and fantasy-chasing becomes desperate. A kind of nostalgia sets in that’s fitting for an age where memories are often fake. After all, life in massively agglomerated metropolises just doesn’t afford people the luxury of making memories that might safeguard their humanity.
Mankind’s humanity is somehow at stake in this woman, because she is both a harbinger of the future—a technological product whose productivity involves the regime’s self-defense—and a test case: she’s personally testing the limits of humanity, but not at all sure it’s worth living in such a regime.
A case of industrial terrorism the authorities cannot seem to solve turns out to be her way to begin learning about her own secretive origins. She is looking for a way to assert her humanity even though she’s caught between corporations and government agencies that are determined to keep everything of importance to audience and protagonist a secret.
Another Entry In the Super-Soldier-Girl Genre
So this is a promising story and very much of the times. It’s the second wide-release movie headed by Johansson after the 2014 action movie “Lucy,” in which she played a pretty girl who inexplicably develops superhuman powers and badly beats or kills every man on-screen while trying to find out the secret of her humanity-surpassing powers. That movie was a shocking success, earning $455 million worldwide on a $40 million budget and women were half the movie’s American audience, suggesting women doing martial arts choreography in alluring apparel is a big draw.
Johansson, whose career seems dependent on the Disney-Marvel studio, made a smart choice in betting on French director Luc Besson, who is world-famous for spellbinding action. That was a way to sell her new brand while getting some independence. “Ghost in the Shell” was supposed to be another very smart choice, adding credibility by telling a really good story in the super-soldier-girl genre.
The studio worked with Chinese studios to ensure its Asian success and must have bet on its country of origin, Japan, for its profitability as well. Well, whatever its worldwide audience turns out to be, in America it has failed to get women to see it, or much of anyone else.
That’s just as well, because it has very little to say to women, and little more to anyone else. It is not only inferior to the Japanese original, but it’s inferior in useless ways. It has wasted all its opportunities—to update the story, reflect on its original success, or Americanize it—without gaining popularity, money, or anything else. It seems the writers and director failed to even try to tell an interesting story.
This Plot Is Nothing New
You walk into the theater, and after the first scene you know the plot. The scriptwriters had no interest in concealing who the bad guy is or making this person human or interesting. But it still takes two hours to wrap it all up! This is not an original story, so you have to ask yourself, what would Hollywood add to a foreign story to Americanize it? The answer, if you’ve been watching movies aimed at so-called young adults over the last decade, is: The military-industrial complex—the adult-world—is sucking the life out of idealistic, rebellious young people.
So we again have to take up arms against the political paranoia that sells with young people in our times. It sells because it confirms that their loneliness is someone else’s fault and turns their anger into a fictional madness.
What are they really angry about? They were brought up into a society with no confidence in itself or its—their!—future. What does the anger do to story-telling? It ensures that future societies cannot be any better than this society even in our stories. Our popular stories have stopped saying anything confident about the future. Much of the public imagination is now dead. It seems the ideology of progress has suffered another collapse, and the technological progress of the future shows up only as the cause of monstrous mutilations of our being.
This is not to say that fears about the future cannot make for worthwhile stories. But this time, the paranoia is done so badly that it only made $19 million its opening weekend. Of course, that’s a fortune, but for a movie that cost more than $100 million to make, let alone market, a fortune will not suffice to break even. Only some shocking success outside America could make the movie profitable.
The Real Story Inside ‘Ghost in the Shell’
But the real story is elsewhere. All the questions, whether added in America or from the Japanese original, have to do with inhabiting the body, whether we can really be human in the scientific future ahead of us.
She’s supposed to play strong women who act decisively by their own counsel, but the only reason she’s on screen is because people like to stare at her body.
Let’s start with the body of the protagonist. First, as always, comes race. There has been some controversy because the protagonist of this Japanese story is a white American girl. Well, so is the lead in the original anime. For reasons we don’t need to enter into now, lots of anime is dedicated to the proposition that protagonists should look as white as rice, so to speak.
That fact, though visible to the naked eye, is probably not ideologically admissible evidence, so it cannot quiet the kind of people who want to market their outrage. But it’s a fact nevertheless—just go see the original anime. What’s weirder than the fake outrage is that the new American version of the story reverses the process and ends up telling you the white-as-rice protagonist Scarlett Johansson is Japanese. This makes no sense in the plot, so maybe it should encourage the kind of hysteria about appropriation I just dismissed.
The other all-American suggestion, of course, concerns feminism, in this case of the corporate-branding variety. Johansson’s naked body has become a kind of popular fantasy. Since she signed up to display her apparently very popular charms for Disney-Marvel’s blockbusters, she has come to embody nerd fantasies, committing extremely violent acts in skintight clothing that makes her even more alluring. Up to now, no one has lost money on this bet.
As with feminism, we see trouble here: On the one hand, she’s supposed to play strong women who act decisively by their own counsel. On the other, the only reason she’s on screen is because people like to stare at her body. It’s a career, I guess, but the lady doesn’t seem happy with it. She did show up naked in “Under the Skin,” a far darker movie where she killed people erotically attracted to her body, to which she was alien.
“Ghost in the Shell” is all about how fake her naked body is and how she cannot feel it. She goes through the movie with an almost-unbroken frown. The body is super-scientific, destroyed and recreated without sentiment, something to be used. This cancels its eroticism, just as its sexual characteristics are both censored by public opinion and effaced by science. There is no childbearing among robots.
To Explore the Chaos Technocrats Unleash, Try Elsewhere
Aside from these cultural issues of latter-day liberalism, the movie is a combination of “Blade Runner” and “Westworld.” The body is the place individuality fights the scientific production of new, improved human beings by corporations that work beyond the laws. The stake is our very humanity. As the bodies become incredibly powerful machines, memories become fake, mortality is manipulated, people end up existentially lonely, and the city looks miserable. This is a grim view of the future.
It can only give you tech-generated action, conspiracy theories, and a moralistic speech from a feminist-plausible heroine.
The city of the future is even worse. Fake images of fantasies advertised everywhere in the air, dirt, and ugliness on the ground; underground, there is exploitation and self-destruction. That’s an image of the collapse of liberal metropolises a generation back, and it has not been updated by the writers in the light of this generation’s experience, which was a mistake. Nor did the writers think much about the changes the new powers of surveillance have introduced, another mistake in such a tech-centered story.
With such a protagonist and such a society, no happy end is possible, but in America corporations mandate happy ends, so the writers tacked on an obviously fake happy end. This nevertheless failed to enthuse the American audience. You’re much better off watching “Blade Runner”—whose upcoming sequel hopefully will be worthwhile—and “Westworld,” a worthwhile adaptation of an old story. Both deal with the creation of machine-men, the revolt of the creature against the creator, and corporations that run our apolitical future, unleashing on and in our bodies scientifically empowered chaotic desires.
For all its failures, “Ghost in the Shell” aims to be humanistic. It may not go anywhere near as far as Walt Whitman to sing the body electric, but it is trying to say it’s good to be human, even a machine-human, at least if democracy can keep some control over technological oligarchy. It says so explicitly. But it cannot show any of that. It can only give you tech-generated action, conspiracy theories, and a moralistic speech from a feminist-plausible heroine.
The Update Eliminates the Core Existential Questions
The core of the original was the protagonist, who has to prove to herself that she can live in her body, that she is still human. Here’s one example. In the original, the nameless, titanium-bodied protagonist goes swimming alone with a small floating device that allows her to get back to the surface, and whose failure would end her life. She courts death because it is important to her to remember her mortality, the power chance plays in life, and that life is nevertheless a choice, if it is to be really human. Because her body is a technological product, she is neither fully in control nor does she even own it.
In the American version, the girl just swims with fins, no danger and no fuss, and instead says it’s cold, dark, and scary. Either the existential importance of the choice is lost on the writers or they wanted to evacuate seriousness from the story. There’s reason to believe it’s the latter, because the story has been modified throughout to show that the body is a replaceable thing, endlessly remade with no one paying attention to the automated process, and that, anyway, it can be preserved. Every edge has been blunted, lest the audience notice anything but the thrills and spectacle of the fight scenes.
So also with the music: The original soundtrack evokes the awe with which we should encounter this specific, fearful future. The main theme of that soundtrack is played over the closing credits now, and the noise in the movie is as forgettable as the stuff made for Marvel movies. It’s remarkable how sound and image have been rendered useless in the effort to make a blockbuster, making the bodily experience of movie-watching almost useless.
Skip Rotten Tomatoes, they’re biased SJWs too afraid to criticize things like the Ghost Busters reboot. Avoid giving them ad revenue by using the minimalist alternative, Cinesift, for a quick aggregate:
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