Thursday, 24 July 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

So, apparently I blinked and now Scarlett Johansson is now the queen of sci-fi?

She's been in soft sci-fi with The Avengers and other assorted Marvel products, she's been the voice of a (for once, not evil) super intelligent AI in Her and  she's set to unlock 100% of her brain in Luc Besson's Lucy but that's all pretty standard stuff. Under the Skin is not standard. Not at all.

Touted largely as a "sci-fi art" film and given very limited releases, Under the Skin was never meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The freedom of not having to target the masses obviously gave film-maker Jonathon Glazer to create the trippy, Kubrickean art piece that he wanted.

I say this a lot, but this is really a film you're better off going into when you know nothing. I saw the first trailer for it and it didn't give away too much, but the description below the video contained one key word that pops up everywhere if you search for this film. Personally I think you're better not knowing from the start, but even then it works either way because you'll figure it out on your own thanks to the fantastic direction by Glazer.

In many ways, considering large amounts of it are so bizarre and surreal, much of the film feels incredibly grounded and real. Part of the film involves Johansson's character driving around Scotland picking up hitch-hikers in an old white van and flirting with them. And according to Glazer, the way you make that authentic is put some hidden cameras in a van and have Scarlett Johansson pick up hitch-hikers and flirt with them.

It's odd then that these scenes provide some of the most tense and horrifying parts of the film. The way Johansson switches back and forth between a cold, robotic manner into a charming and flirty personable woman is scary in and of itself. Throw into the mix that she's some form of sexual predator in a quite literal sense and you get a sense of unease not often seen in horror films: men being groomed and targeted as victims by a sexual villain. A man driving round in a van trying to lure women in, no matter how good looking, would set off the creep alarm for just about anyone, but a beautiful woman trying to lure men into a van is subtler and makes the victims even more vulnerable because of the lack of suspicion.

A pivotal encounter with one victim triggers an exploration into two areas: what it means to be seen as something that is "less than"- whether it's one sex being "less than" the other, or someone being "less than" human because of how they look and it takes a look at the idea of how different the dangers of sexual assault is for the genders. By pointing a lens at the idea that a lone man cannot be safe walking down the street at night without being put at a very real risk of being abducted and raped, it shines a light on just how bad, and actually real, the danger can be for women. It comes full circle final scenes of the film when Scarlett's character's fate is determined not because of what she really is, but because of how she looks to those in the world around her.

All in all, Under the Skin is a truly artistic and cinematic film in the truest senses of the words. A lack of true dialogue leaves you to figure out a lot of the film for yourself and take away what you want from it. With a really sharp eye for special effects and how to frame the distinctive landscapes of Scotland, Jonathon Glazer captures a sense of beautiful horror the likes of which haven't really been seen since Stanley Kubrick's reign.