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From Under A Rock: Under the Skin

November 26, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Under the Skin  


Some films radically change your perspective of what the media is capable of. Today’s film caught my (Aaron’s) interest and blew me away on first viewing, and helped pave the way for me to appreciate movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. For that, I’m eternally grateful.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael took Aaron out from under the rock for the 1986 David Cronenberg reimagining of The Fly. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock for Under the Skin.

Under the Skin
Released: April 4th, 2014 (U.S.)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell
Scarlett Johansson as Laura
Jeremy McWilliams as The Bad Man #1
Adam Pearson

Aaron Hubbard: I chose Under the Skin because, along with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Babadook, it ranks among my favorites of 2014. I had to share it with Michael at some point. Few films have hit me so hard or stuck in my mind as much.

Michael Ornelas: I literally just finished watching this and…wow. That’s really all I have to say right here. Let’s go straight to the discussion.
Otherworldly Perspective
Aaron: Fair warning to readers; this review will be spoiler heavy. Under the Skin is a film that seeks to make us feel apart from humans. The film is structured so that we feel exclusively attached to Laura, or distantly removed from others. Dialogue is usually mumbled and rarely important; many conversations are authentic video of Scarlett picking up men around Scotland, who later agreed to be in the film. It’s unimportant to the story; just noise. It’s nerve-wracking for me and I always feel slightly dissociated from my own humanity as I am sucked into the film. I can’t think of any other movie that causes that sort of emotional reaction in me. It also allows me to go on the alien’s journey with her, feeling emotions like they were the first time. It’s a movie about becoming human.

Michael: I second everything you just said. Usually the lack of any meaningful dialogue in a film has me checking my phone or counting the seconds until it’s over, but here, I couldn’t help but just go into a state of hypnosis, not unlike the guys who end up in the pool/floor/thing and ultimately have their bodies sucked out of their skin (I was referring to them all as “boner dudes” during the movie because…I mean, that’s kind of all they function as). I watched every single David Lynch movie at the start of the year, and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the avant-garde in film, albeit whilst kicking and screaming. Symbolism and metaphorical films no longer terrify me (because I never considered myself analytical enough to truly get them) because I’m more able to tap into the part of my brain that can consume media like this. It’s truly fascinating. Just in the way she was trying to understand humans, I was trying to understand her; we were trading places and that alone is an achievement in storytelling.

Aaron: It’s kind of amazing that there are such direct, literal explanations for what is going on in the story. But if you say “An alien seduces and kills men in Scotland, learns empathy and begins to feel human emotions, tries to find her own humanity, and then is murdered after realizing how hopeless it is,” you are getting a tiny bit of what the film offers. What I remember most is the emotional gut punch of her interacting with Adam Pearson’s character. Pearson suffers from neurofibromatosis; there were no prosthetics. Seeing this killer treat him like he were any other man broke me, and made me question my worth as a human being. Knowing I could never be so casual with someone like that, and the loathing I felt for myself; I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that kind of horror again. When you have to ask “Does it take being an inhuman killer to really, truly see all humans as humans?” What does that say about us?
What Is My Purpose?
Michael: “You pass butter.” I kid, but points if you get the reference. Besides the alien-becoming-human component of Laura, the thing that stood out to me the most was the emphasis on appearance. There was this hollow vibe that went along with watching Laura get dressed up to go out and seduce men. To me, the dialogue was mumbled (aka said in a Scottish dialect) or muted to show that words and interactions don’t matter. What mattered was that Laura was hot, and men wanted to have sex with her. That was it. That was her whole purpose. She grew out of it and found an arc that explored character beyond that, but that’s pretty fucking bleak. It’s a condemnation on toxic masculinity and it stings to see it shoved in our faces and to know it’s not inaccurately portrayed. The only time Laura gets someone in her van for anything but her looks, she lets him live and develops a real human connection (the character played by Adam Pearson). I think the way this is presented is genius.

Aaron: I also find it to be an amusing meta-narrative; I remember the marketing and buzz around this was based on the idea of seeing Scarlett Johansson in all of her glory. And then viewers got made when they ended up watching this film; many got so frustrated they left before seeing Scarlett naked. I find this deliciously ironic. On a more brutally ironic note, the film’s ending flips the narrative by having Laura sexually assaulted, even using her hunting theme to drive the point home. Terrifying stuff.

Michael: That made me so uncomfortable, and that’s putting it lightly. Some may point to hypocrisy, but it’s nature vs. nurture here. It was her nature to seduce men and lead them to their ultimate demise in this movie, but once she developed empathy, she stopped this pattern. I won’t assert that she “learned it was wrong” but she definitely was at a crossroads between “what she was” and “what she was becoming.” I also think the film even further demonstrates its point about toxic masculinity because we never actually see her assault anyone. She just gets naked and they choose to follow her. But when she is on the verge of getting raped in the woods, that is a very real experience for many women. The combination of seeing both sides of the coin here shows that no matter who the victim is, the men are making the decisions. I’m not saying that’s true to reality (nor do I think the filmmaker is implying that), but it’s definitely worth illuminating the idea because it’s prominent enough.
Rabbit in a Snowstorm
Aaron: When I think of the term “Art Film”, legendary names like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch come to mind, as well as more recently Nicolas Winding Refn and Denis Villeneuve. These directors produce deliberately obtuse art pieces that may have the basic skeleton of a story, but aren’t really about the plot. They are about ideas and themes and most importantly; “How do they make you feel?” It’s like staring into a painting that has no clear meaning, only to realize the value is in what it causes you to experience. This film is that kind of movie. Not for everyone, and I totally respect when people say they hate it. But I love it.

Michael: I hate “art films,” but what I love more than them are good films. There are exceptions to every rule, and this is one of them. Usually, these types of films that get away with symbolism over plot are pretentious and only doing so because they can, not because it’s the best way to present the story they’re going for. I don’t want to imagine this story being told any other way because it fits like a glove. This movie made me feel a lot of things, but mostly just an intense curiosity, almost as if a knowing spectator seeing the possibilities up ahead, wondering which paths would open up to Laura first. The human experience is largely the same for most people. The only real differences are the order in which we encounter things, and how powerful of a reaction we have to them. Ultimately, those are what shape us. This movie was like getting to sit back and watch a blank slate get carved into. I couldn’t peel my eyes away.

Aaron It definitely has that hypnotic effect you alluded to. I’ve yet to come across an art film that I find genuinely pretentious, though some admittedly fly over my head. But perhaps that’s due to limited experience and how I’m wired. Personally, I want more films like Under the Skin; films made with skill and purpose, that respect and challenge the audience, and push the boundaries of storytelling in film. If we lose people like that, I think it’ll be a huge loss for the industry as a whole.

Aaron: I think we hit all the major points about why I love this film; its presentation, its story of an alien mimicking human behavior until she wants to be human, its emotional beats. My only tiny knock is that it doesn’t have quite the same impact on my second viewing. So I am going to go with a nearly perfect grade.


Michael: This movie was just such a unique experience, and so flawlessly executed, that I can’t imagine giving it anything less than the top marks. This will be a film I revisit for years to come and beyond the motifs, acting, and story, we got wonderful cinematography and a killer score.


Aaron: On a side note; the alien’s final reveal is really cool and haunting. I love that design, and I love that we see ScarJo’s reaction to seeing herself.

Michael: And I also really dug that the alien still had Scarlett’s likeness. It gave a reason for Laura to look the way she looks even in human skin. Cool idea.

What are your feelings on arthouse films? Love ’em, hate ’em? Apathetic? Let us know!

Next week:

Michael: This one’s because you wanted me to choose it, and since it’ll be December, I had to save it so we can review it as a Christmas movie!
Die Hard
Aaron: Finally! I can’t believe you made me wait this damn long after I said I hadn’t seen it. I can’t wait.

Michael: Well I can’t pick a Christmas movie in June, can I?

What’s your favorite action movie franchise?

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The final score: review Amazing
The 411
If you're willing to give Under the Skin a shot, be prepared for something outside the usual Hollywood fare. With little dialogue and some amazing visual storytelling, this film will be a rewarding experience for anybody who loves digging into themes and ideas. Weird, hypnotic, and like few other films, it's definitely one to give a look.