Science Fiction Double Feature
Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN, somewhat loosely adapted from the Michel Faber novel, screened at the New Sheridan Opera House in Telluride today — an amazing building which immediately makes one feel like Lily Langtry upon entering.
I found the film quite impressive, but baffling, which I think is intentional. Stripping away all the explanatory content of the novel and representing some key action in a rather abstract way, the movie depends more on imagery and eerie music and sound design than on narrative, character development or dialogue. It was particularly nice to see it in the US where 90% of the dialogue, delivered in strong Glasgow patois, must have been entirely incomprehensible. The gloomy Glasgow street scenes did not make me feel homesick (West George Street, earlier seen in CLOUD ATLAS doubling for San Francisco, and in Bertrand Tavernier’s DEATHWATCH, must be Glasgow’s most science-fictional location now).
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien, sent to Earth to seduce men, who are then abducted and — what, exactly? Fans of the book will probably be dismayed that the clear, procedural horror of the story concept is rendered vague and abstract here — still very disturbing at times, but much harder to assign meaning to. Fans of S.J. may to busy ogling her exposed skin to notice — the movie is, in a sense, structured as a strip-tease, with an unpleasant final ta-daa that takes the movie’s title rather literally…
Johanssen is good — very intriguing — but the film doesn’t allow us to understand her motivations. Glazer talked about wanting to show the world through alien eyes, but because the plot is so obscure, it’s perhaps more a case of watching an alien through human eyes.
Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY is likely to be less divisive — a sweaty-palm suspense movie which is also a spiritual odyssey and an audio-visual-tactile exploration of space travel, it delivers a conventional three-act structure and character arc with such conviction and panache as to make old-fashioned storytelling seem more daring than Glazer’s obfuscation. Screened at the new Werner Herzog Theater, it benefited from astonishing sound and picture quality which enhanced Cuaron’s long-take aesthetic — the movie produces constant gasps via pure film technique and artful deployment of bleeding edge FX technology, but uses this in support of the human element — starry yet convincing performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It’s particularly a relief to see Bullock in something that isn’t embarrassing, at last. I’d almost forgotten what a strong and engaging performer she is — she works wonders here, and though Clooney fans will surely love what he does, it’s her film.
The 3D is utilized with grace and audacity, in this film in which every single shot — and there are apparently only 37 — is a special effect. A sequence of space debris flashing into the camera had me repeatedly flinching — not jumping in COMIN’ AT YA! shock, but compulsively blinking as if to avoid space dust getting in my eyes. The rest of the time the 3D is mainly used to enhance the illusion of floating in zero G — we get teardrops and a Marvin the Martian doll and numerous other bits of detritus drifting between us and the cast. It’s beautiful, but also incredibly exciting — a series of terrifying suspense scenarios that escalate as the film goes on. Quite the most remarkable major studio release I’ve seen in a long time.