Under the Skinrecommended viewing

Take this job and shove it
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Jonathan Glazer
Starring: 
Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
The Setup: 
Alien’s mission to gather Earth men goes awry
Discussion: 

I wanted to see this when it was out, since I really loved the director’s previous film, Birth, and it sounded interesting, and received mixed reviews that could only barely summarize what it’s about. Recipe for success! Still, see it I did not, even as several readers of this site wrote in specifically to ask me to watch it. I even rented it once via streaming, but my stream died. Anyway, finally, at last, I’ve seen it—and I’m really happy I did! [Although perhaps more afterward than while actually watching it.]

We open with a light that becomes a disc, then watch as black fluid consumes a circle, then that gradually becomes an eye, as we hear a voice practicing first sounds, then syllables, and finally full words. Then a man on a motorcycle drives down a night road, pulls off and collects a female body, putting it in a white van. Then, in a completely white environment, we see a nude Scarlett Johansson pull off the dead woman’s clothes and stare at her corpse. She soon goes to a mall, where she buys a red top, a fur coat, and some red lipstick. Alrighty: off to pick up guys!

She drives around in her van, spotting guys and asking for directions. Note how her face goes completely expressionless while she’s stalking, sizing up her prey, then becomes warm and smiley while talking to the guys. These guys are real passers-by, recorded with cameras hidden at various places in the van. She asks them if they have any girlfriend, job or family, and if they don’t, they are more likely to become her victims. We then see them following her in a completely black room with a reflective floor. As she steps backward, removing her clothes, the guys sink downward into black muck. The way it worked when filming was that if they liked one of the random real guys off the street, they would explain that it was a film, and see if he wanted to give consent and appear in the black muck scene.

Now, this is what most people know about this movie, and what can give them the impression [as it did me] that this is pretty much what happens until the end of the movie. Oh, but how wrong they are! However, this is where we have to enter the spoilers, because telling more would affect your view while watching the rest. However, we can tell even so far that this movie is content to just show what is happening, but far less keen on explaining any of it, letting you put everything together for yourself, not knowing whether you’re right or not. And that, once we start going outside of what we know from the plot summary [i.e. alien picks up guys], can grow quite confusing and intriguing—and frustrating—as we’re just seeing a lot unfold without a sense that any of it is hanging together or really going anywhere. It is, but it’s a long journey to get there, and probably most of your enjoyment of this film will be in appreciating it after its over, rather than while it’s on. But it is a very worthwhile journey. So off you go!

SPOILERS > > >
She goes to a beach, where once again, she’s trying to pick up guys. She’s giving the small talk to a guy when suddenly he takes off, because over here is a man, trying to rescue a woman, trying to rescue a dog, all in a dangerous current. It’s very convincing, especially when the dog vanishes, then the woman vanishes… Scarlett gets the rescuer guy back, barely conscious, and bludgeons him with a stone, then drags him out of the water. Meanwhile, there is a toddler crying on the beach. Scarlett drags the guy off, which looks pretty taxing, and later, after darkness has fallen, we see the toddler… still on the beach! That image of a baby just left alone, all guardians dead, was pretty shocking!

Next is an expanded vision of what happens to guys down in the black muck… one guy looks up and sees Scarlett standing on the surface above him. He sees another guy, who seems to have been fattened up, or his skin loosened somehow, as it undulates creepily in the current. Then, suddenly, he is sucked out, leaving only his skin hanging in the fluid, making for some very creepy and indelible images. This also gives us our first hints that maybe it’s not Scarlett herself that is consuming these guys, but she is gathering them for someone else. There is also this mysterious guy on a motorcycle who seems to be assisting her or somehow in cahoots with her. In the novel [which I haven’t read] she is not the only alien sent to Earth, there is a guy, and also, it’s explicit that she’s collecting humans for consumption by others.

Anyway, soon she picks up a facially-disfigured guy, and this seems to be the turning point. She talks to him and breaks down the barriers and defenses he has put up over the years. He falls into the muck, and we briefly see a black humanoid [presumably the alien], and a fly trapped against glass, and Scarlett looking into a hole… and next thing we know, she has let the disfigured guy loose. He runs home, only to be found and killed by the motorcycle guy.

Now Scarlett seems to give up the search for guys entirely. She goes to a diner, orders cake, then spits it up. She ends up in the highlands [did I mention that this is all taking place in Scotland?]. She goes walking along in just her red shirt, and a bus driver tells her she’d better get a coat, or she’ll catch cold. All along, she seems to be in a daze. A guy on the bus offers to help her. She goes home with him. They watch TV, listen to music, all of which she seems fascinated by. He takes her to a castle. At home, they start to kiss [he likes ‘em catatonic] and he goes down on her. She seems shocked and interrupts this to take a good, hard look at her snatch. In here, we have a shot indicating that motorcycle guy is looking for her.

Now here’s where, even if you’ve come this far, you still have a chance to skip past the spoilers, and I would advise you to do so if you want to watch the film, because the last section is quite poetic and beautiful. Scarlett leaves the guy and goes wandering in the woods. She meets a logger, and is told that she is entering 2,000 acres of uninterrupted forest. She goes in, wanders, and finds a cabin meant for people hiking in the woods. There she sleeps, and we have a gorgeous image of curled up superimposed over rustling trees. In the morning, she is being molested by the logger. She gets away.

She’s walking on when the logger meets her again and is quite clear that he means to rape her. He attacks, when suddenly he stops, freaked out. Then we see… that her skin has peeled off in places, and she is black underneath. She kneels and peels her skin away and we see that she is a thin, black humanoid alien. She holds her skin in her hand, staring down at Scarlett’s face, eyes still blinking, and contemplates it. It is a gorgeous, haunting image. Then… well, I’m not even going to tell you the last thing.

Now, I’ve read a synopsis of the book and several interviews with the director. Here’s what I learned. In the novel, she is one of many aliens sent to Earth to gather meat, which is a delicacy on her planet. So the motorcycle guy is also an alien, and Scarlett herself is not actually consuming these guys. In the novel, she is quite impressed with the beauty of Earth and the ocean, which she doesn’t have on her planet, and gradually just becomes disillusioned with her job, wanting only to explore and soak up the beauty of Earth. Then interviews with the director indicate that he and a co-writer just kept paring away the action of the book until you have what is here, a series of vignettes with no explanation, just letting you decide what’s going on and putting it all together for yourself.

So here’s my interpretation. She’s here to gather tasty human flesh for her buds back on wherever, but we know all that. She starts to lose faith in her mission when she sees the family struggling, and ultimately dying, in the current. Once she meets the disfigured guy, she is moved by him, and lets him go [although motorcycle guy has to make sure no one finds out, and so kills the guy]. From that point, she is fully off her mission, and curious about these humans. She tries to eat cake, she is fascinated by television and humor and music, and people trying to help her, and people trying to eat her out… which is why she seems so shocked and curious about her vagina. She just continues wandering, finally absorbed by nature in the final minutes, and then having that beautiful moment of contemplation at the end. Then there is the final act, which shows human brutality in a way she can’t really understand, and provides a beautiful, elemental image [fire, water in snow] and is just gorgeous and fitting in an intuitive way that can’t be put into words.

So it starts out about one thing, an alien gathering meat, and becomes about another, about appreciating the beauty of nature and the wonder of humanity, which is such a basic, earnest theme it would probably be difficult if not impossible to do in a straight-ahead film. But because everything is so removed by the artfulness of it and the need to put together what is happening, you can have such a sincere and simple message about appreciating beauty and discovering the wonder of the world without it being cloying or sentimental.
< < < SPOILERS END

The movie it reminds me most of is The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is also about an alien going off-mission and ending up confused and at loose ends wandering around Earth. This one is a bit harder to watch, though, and I will confess that, watching it at home on TV, I was a little bored. But this may have been the presentation; a friend who saw it in the theater says “It was impossible to get bored in the theater because it was all so gorgeous to look at, with all those deep blacks and greens.” So yeah, another strike against home video.

This is one of those movies that you need to put together afterward, and once you do, you really start appreciating it and liking what it has to say. You just have to stick with it through some really long, dull scenes and long times where you have no idea what is happening, which can lead to its own kind of boredom, but you have to just make it through. Rewards await you in the end.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! And you must make it all the way to the end.

Comments

This is one of those times that I must remind myself that the source material and the movie taken from it are two different entities and must be judged separately, especially when the filmmaker chooses to emphasize different things. But the book impressed me so much that I couldn't help but be disappointed with the movie, which seemed only half there to me. The author, Michel Faber, does strange very well, but he also does clarity very well (which is important when you're doing strange). His most recent, "The Book of Strange New Things", is also excellent.

I might just check it out, thanks...

absolutely love this movie. the soundtrack is also so eerie and perfectly sets the mood.

as for the scene at the man's house: i took the sequence where she becomes shocked / fascinated that she has a vagina to mean that, although she'd been thinking of herself as a predator/hunter of sorts all that time, she has now realized that she is prey (which adds even more to the horror of what happens at the end with the would-be rapist).

I hadn't thought of that... it adds an interesting way to look at it, thanks.