-->
Film

Mysterious Aliens and Inscrutable Humans: 'Under the Skin'

The simple yet transformative hat-trick of Under the Skin is that it is the humans who are alien.


Under the Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hádek, Jessica Mance, Scott Dymond, Joe Szula, Michael Moreland, Lee Fanning, Ben Mills, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Jeremy McWilliams
Length: 106 minutes
Studio: A24
Year: 2013
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: R
UK Release Date: 2014-07-14
US Release Date: 2014-07-15
Website

Most alien movies follow an invasion blueprint: they take a human point of view as humans and aliens make contact, then examine the differences and weaknesses of the extraterrestrial until it can be explained or defeated (or not). Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and loosely based on the novel by Michel Faber, takes the opposite approach. The movie sticks closely to the perspective of an alien visitor, and, in turn, it's human behavior that's placed under scrutiny and comes across as otherworldly.

It's not that we know much about the the extraterrestrial homeworld. The film begins with a female alien (Scarlett Johansson) taking a human form, which goes by Laura, and wandering the streets of Glasgow, Scotland. She's followed by an equally mysterious male on a motorcycle (real-life motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams). There are few, impressionistic images of her origins, but no explanation of her intentions. The question of why she's there is never answered.

Instead, we follow Laura as she drives around the streets of Glasgow in a van, luring and seducing men into her orbit, often to their detriment. For these scenes, Glazer uses a series of non-actors in largely improvised environments; the van is outfitted with up to ten hidden-camera setups.

The result of these conditions—regular people having unscripted conversations in a natural setting without cameras reminding them they're being filmed—should be naturalistic. However, they don't entirely feel this way. While these scenes do feel authentic, Glazer heightens the action beyond the typical found-footage-style documentary. His images are more beautiful than something you'd expect from dashboard cameras. He also sets the scenes to a discordantly beautiful score by Mica Levi. You can feel the disconnect between Laura and the rest of humanity; everything feels distant and unsettled.

This is largely to the credit of Johansson. She's capable of telegraphing both seduction and isolation simultaneously. She connects with the men she meets on the street, but you can tell that there's an emotional disconnect. While there is dialogue throughout the film, Johansson is essentially giving a silent performance. The words that pass between her and the men are of no consequence to the arc of the film; they're just to get the men in the van. The emotional core of the story—which comes more and more into focus as the film progresses—is almost entirely advanced through Johansson's face.

And just because Laura remains emotionally distant from humans, it doesn't mean that Under the Skin doesn't pack an emotional punch for the viewer. Without giving away too many details, there's an utterly devastating moment that clearly demonstrates her lack of attachment to children.

Throughout the film, Glazer underlines Laura's journey with some show-stopping visuals. The film begins with images of circles slowly moving into alignment (and that Levi score pumped to full volume). The circles slowly resolve into a human eye, with Johansson's disembodied voice practicing English words. It was striking to look at; festival reviews (that were later trumpeted in the film's trailer) wondered if Glazer was an "heir to Kubrick." It's a self-aggrandizing comparison, but not entirely uncalled for. More importantly, that scene communicated everything you needed to know about the premise of the film—that there's an otherworldly presence taking the form of a human—without a single second of spoken exposition.

If there's one criticism to be found in Under the Skin, it's that it might be too enamored of its own process. The cycle of Laura's approaching a man, seducing him into her van, and the consequences that follow repeats itself too often throughout the middle of the film. Eventually, the cycle changes as Laura learns more about life on Earth, but too often the same scenario repeats itself before the changes become evident.

Under the Skin thrusts its viewers into this cycle without much explanation to give bearings, and starting off-balance adds to the ambiance of the film. But if behind-the-scenes explanations are necessary, the Blu-Ray release offers plenty of supplemental material that unlocks all of the aspects of the filmmaking. There's no commentary track, but a series of featurettes addresses the camera setups, casting (Glazer, a music-video director himself, says he wanted Johansson after seeing her in a video, presumably for "Falling Down"), editing (which explains how they dealt with more than 200 hours of that hidden camera footage), locations, music, poster design, production design, script, sound, and visual effects.

These features do give interesting insight into the unusual production of the film. But it's definitely a more moving experience to go in blind, and see a moody human/alien contact movie where the humans are the ones who are inscrutable.

8
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less
9
Music

The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image