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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Under the Skin (2013) Sci-Fi

Under the Skin (2013) - Based on a book by Michel Faber, a surrealist novel about an alien race secretly abducting humans as a food source for their home planet. Having read it, is seems more a comment on corporate structure in modern society, as well as a rip on industrial factory farming. The beauty of the book is that while focusing through alien eyes the writer comments on very human emotions, on class-ism, sacrifice and animal cruelty.
 The book is a repetitive meditation, a routine broken up by the thoughts of the lead character Isserley and her interactions with hitchhikers and fellow aliens at the Scottish farm.. She is in the elite class of her home world, a barren planet run by corporations, where human meat called "vodsel" is a delicacy. She has sacrificed her body for the job she does. Medically modified to look human she so she can pick up hitch hikers on the roads of Scotland, she no longer fits with her people. She finds herself seeking the isolation of the road to interacting with the lower class workers in the farm. Having worked hard to learn enough about humans to do her job she feels her sacrifices have made her unique. She knows the other aliens will never understand the danger she faces or the fact that she will never fit in again. This makes her even more isolated and lonely.
  Challenging her conception of her job and the sacrifices she has made is Amis another elite and son of a corporate boss. At first she just sees him as a spoiled rich kids but eventually learns he is a principled crusader against the factory farming of humans she has worked so hard to be good at. She is threatened with the knowledge that she is not unique, that many others on her planet are willing to make the same sacrifices of body to get her position. She decides to go below the farm and see the process of turning a human into vodsel meat and is appalled at the process. She is thrown into an unstable state.
 Most of the book a meditation on routine, a bit too long and repetitive for some readers eventually moves to a climax. A final terrifying incident while working pushes Isserley past the point of return and she decides to leave the farm and drive off into the Scottish countryside. The unsatisfying end leaves the reader feeling a bit empty as far as the plot goes but with plenty to think about.
  The film with lead Scarlett Johansson as Isserley renamed in the film Laura is equally surreal in its presentation. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004)) Under the Skin is a intricately shot and edited film with an alien feel and sound scape that really works well in the barren cold of Scotland. Unique multiple small camera approach to the driving scenes makes for many varying shots. Up to ten cameras filming a scene left plenty in the editing room to make the film more interesting to look at.
  The film not wanting to show the aliens, since that would be 1. Really hard to pull off well. And 2. Because it is much more alluring to have Scarlett  walk into an apartment and start taking off her clothes as she lures a man into a dark processing goo in a wonderfully shot trans dimensional portal. Johansson playing the part as awkward stranger looking for directions is very alien in her inability to chat p the strange men. Like in the book though what she does not have in conversation skills is more than made up for in physical assets. The men so interested in her body and a chance at it that they overlook the disconnected eyes and lack of facial expressions. Entranced the men walk into the black goo erections hard before they realized the deception.
  The scenes of the victims in this processing material are wonderfully artistic although I found myself wishing for the reveal of the muscled up square human of the book. A creature like a cattle cow so built up that the maximum meat was available for processing.
  The film does make an improvement on the book in that it has the main character Laura in more populated areas of Scotland and in doing that we get to see through her alien eyes the noise and confusion that is humans living together. One short  17 second shot layers images of people upon images of people while a cacophony of sounds play to show Laura's inability to process all that is around her. Throughout the film the shots are for mood and beauty and it works to make the earth seem as alien to the viewer as it is to the main character. Stunning landscapes, fog and rain on quaint villages, a roaring ocean are captivating to Laura as she prowls the road looking for victims.
  Although there are changes to the story it is still compelling if not as clear as in the book. The motorcyclist aliens that are hunting for her when she is off in the countryside are an enigma that is not completely explained. Knowing the corporate structure from the book makes it more understandable to this viewer but someone who has not read the book may take a bit more time to put the pieces together.
  Humanizing the alien as the film progresses is a strong stroke to make her sympathetic, but keeping her alien every time you think she can start seeming human is the stroke of genius.  When we get to the final  terrifying and then and sad ending the audience can completely be on Laura's side. It an interesting place to get to where we feel for Laura, after all her job is to trap and deliver us to be force fed and grown into cattle to then be slaughtered and eaten.Although not a masterpiece the film does capture much of the meditative quality of the book and when all is said and done is itself a fine surrealist exploration of humankind from an alien point of view. There is a recommendation for this film from this blog although viewers should be warned this is very much an independent film and is not quite so concerned with script structure as it is with feeling and mood.

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