Under the Skin Review

UNDER-THE-SKIN-poster-Under the Skin is a science fiction film by Jonathan Glazer based upon the novel of the same name by Michael Faber. It stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman who prowls the streets of Edinburgh picking up men. She lures them into her van, on the pretense of a sexual liaison, but they meet a much less pleasant fate. I can’t say much more about the plot without getting into spoilers, and I don’t want to spoil the film if you haven’t seen it, however there may be some minor spoilers ahead.

Under the Skin is almost an experimental film. Some of the movie is shot in a hidden camera documentary style. The men that Johansson (her character is never named) picks up, in some cases, are not professional actors and the scenes are improvised. However, it’s difficult to tell which scenes are improvised and which are scripted. The experience is very consistent throughout. The dialogue feels authentic, and slightly awkward. The situations are quite awkward. The men seem mostly confused by Johansson’s overt advances. A lesser film would have portrayed the men as stereotypes, aggressively seeking sex, such that we feel less sympathy for them when the role of predator is reversed. But that doesn’t happen here. There’s much more subtlety. The novel, which I’ve also read, is even more subtle because the reader is privy to the character’s internal monologues. However, it’s impressive that the film manages a similar effect given its economy of dialogue.

This brings me to another point: this film is almost entirely visual. There is very little dialogue and none of it is exposition. The story is revealed to the audience slowly and requires intellectual effort on their part. The film’s pacing is very methodical. The central character’s motivations remain ambiguous. There’s no wasted dialogue or wasted scenes. Everything that happens contributes to developing character or advancing the story. Such economy is rare in movies these days, but I greatly appreciate it in this film.

Film Review Under the SkinThere’s also an art imitating life dimension to the film. In the movie, Scarlett Johannson’s character is traveling a strange, dare I say alien, landscape and interacting with people who don’t recognize her for who she is. In shooting the film, Scarlett Johansson was ‘undercover’ as it were, in a place the Hollywood A-list doesn’t frequent, interacting with people who didn’t recognize her. I wonder if there is a commentary here, intentional or otherwise, about the nature of celebrity. Famous people are just like the rest of us ‘under the skin’ as it were. If intentional, this is a dimension of interpretation that the film adds to the book. In the novel, the character does not look like Scarlett Johansson; she is not necessarily even attractive. So initially I worried that Johansson might have been miscast. However, she is outstanding in the role and her casting, especially given the subtext of the film, is a stroke of genius. And, like most men, I confess that the prospect of seeing skin in Under the Skin piqued my interest. By the way, if you’re uncomfortable with full frontal nudity (male and female) this is not the movie for you. However, the nudity is not gratuitous and Under the Skin avoids becoming an exploitation film. Again, a lesser film could have easily crossed into that territory.

Under the Skin is ultimately a study in contrasts. It combines the candid camera-style documentary footage with sparing use of impressive visual effects. It combines professional actors and unsuspecting passersby with seamless consistency. It combines mundane settings with otherworldly horror. Its narrative style reminded me of The Twilight Zone. In fact, I would love to see a shortened, monochromatic fan edit with an intro by Rod Serling, or a reasonable facsimile. Under the Skin is a welcome return to the more deliberate, more cerebral science fiction film-making of the past. And for that, I appreciate it.

The ending is sure to divide audiences. Moviegoers booed when it was first screened at film festivals. However, for me, the ending works. Perhaps reading the book prepared me for it. I remember thinking that the novel ended on an anticlimactic note, and perhaps audiences will feel the same way about the conclusion of the movie. Upon reflection, however, I realized that there was no other satisfying way to end it. Arguably, the film does an even better job than the book in capturing the irony of the ending. Suffice it to say, you’ll understand why it’s called Under the Skin.

I would recommend this movie to science fiction fans. I think it’s even a good movie to introduce non-science fiction fans to the genre. In a summer of loud blockbusters, this is a quieter film that audiences might overlook. It’s playing in limited release, but it’s well worth seeking out.

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Libertarianism in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I finally got around to seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Friday night. I enjoyed it immensely. Although there are the requisite comic book elements, it felt more like an action movie/political thriller. Without giving away too much of the plot, Steve Rogers finds himself caught in a web of lies and political conspiracies. He doesn’t know who to trust and several of his former allies have turned against him. He begins to question what he has been fighting for and whether or not he can, in good conscience, carry out the missions he’s assigned. In addition, The Winter Soldier is one of the most libertarian films I’ve seen. It doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with its message — it isn’t Atlas Shrugged with superheroes — but it does present a relatively sophisticated articulation of libertarian philosophy. That’s quite an achievement for an entertaining comic book movie. More on this below.

As for the film itself, it’s difficult to discuss without getting into spoiler territory. So from here on, all bets are off. In general terms, however, it really succeeds as an action movie. The action beats are well-shot and are, more or less, realistic. The filmmakers are clearly taking the material seriously. There’s no trace of camp or self-awareness, even when handling material that could easily have looked silly. This is a very earnest treatment. The actors involved, especially Robert Redford, lend a real gravitas to the project. Chris Evans is thoroughly believable as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Scarlett Johansson does her best work of the Marvel franchise in this film. It’s definitely an ensemble effort with Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson rounding out the cast. Everybody performs to a very high caliber.

Although it clocks in at 136 minutes, it’s well-paced and none of the scenes feel like filler. The conspiracy plot is effective and there are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing. Arguably, there may be a few too many twists that audiences — especially those familiar with the source material — will see coming, but that didn’t diminish the impact for me. After all, the characters don’t see it coming, and the actors sell that, so the reveals work. I’m also saying this as someone who read the Winter Soldier storyline in the comics a few years ago, so I was already privy to the spoilers. Nevertheless, I was fully engaged in the story.

It’s not a perfect movie, of course. The Helicarriers are easily reprogrammed by inserting a piece of hardware into the ‘mainframe.’ In addition, there’s a lot of the usual ‘computer hacking’ silliness we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. But that’s a minor quibble that’s easily forgiven. It’s even justifiable insofar as it reinforces the juxtaposition between Cap’s analogue world and our digital one. Despite its flaws — which are intrinsic to the genre — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best film of the Marvel franchise, just edging out Iron Man. It’s easily the best sequel of the series.

But the movie doesn’t just succeed as an entertaining action flick. It works as an indictment of the reigning political paradigm. In short, it’s a pro-libertarian film. If you’ve seen it, I don’t think that statement will be controversial. You may, of course, disagree with its libertarian message, but it’s hard to deny that it’s there. In my judgment, this is the right direction for the series. In fact, one of my criticisms of Agents of SHIELD when it first aired, was that it was too sanguine about the potential evil of such a powerful, covert agency. I’m not current with the series, so that might have changed, but the episodes I watched were alarmingly out of touch with the times, and especially with younger audiences. The show basically portrayed government agencies as good and freedom of information activists as bad. Thankfully, The Winter Soldier goes a long way towards correcting that perception. However, it does so in a surprisingly subtle way; not everyone involved in SHIELD is bad, but such an organization has the capacity to do great evil.

The way this message plays out in the plot, is that SHIELD is attempting to launch weaponized Helicarriers that can assess and eliminate threats before they develop. They are willing to trade liberty and civil rights for security. Ironically, in attempting to make the world safe for democracy, SHIELD is prepared to undermine democracy’s very foundation. As Cap remarks to Fury: “This isn’t freedom. It’s fear.” Or, as Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security will find they have neither.” Unbeknownst to Fury, however, Hydra has secretly infiltrated SHIELD and is steering its operations. The lack of transparency — ‘compartmentalization’ as Fury calls it — has enabled Hydra to seize control.

There’s a great scene in which Cap and Natasha encounter Dr. Zola — whose mind has been uploaded into an old-school computer bank — who explains that Hydra realized after WWII that people naturally resist having their freedom taken away. They must be convinced that freedom is dangerous. They must give it up willingly; they must be convinced that doing so is the only way to remain safe. This message resonates in a post-911, post-Patriot Act, post-Wikileaks world. Captain America, however, recognizes that the ‘price of freedom is high’ and is unwilling to trade liberty for security, especially when such security is an illusion.

Captain America is a libertarian with respect to the limits of government power. He realizes that too much state power can be pernicious. He realizes that the real enemies of freedom are not ‘terrorists’, but those who claim to be fighting on behalf of freedom while simultaneously undermining it. In the end, he realizes that he has to fight against that system in order to preserve his ideals. Ironically, this makes Captain America, a symbol of the state, a fugitive from the state. This symbolic reversal gives the lie to the notion that patriotism requires simply going along with the program. Rather, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “The highest form of patriotism is dissent.”

The film’s message also gives the lie to the oft repeated mantra that democratic governments can’t be oppressive, because the government is us. There are several problems with this slogan. Of course, the government does not simply reflect the will of the people, but even if it did, and the majority of people were willing to give up their civil liberties in the interest of security, that wouldn’t make it less oppressive. The democratic tradition has long recognized ‘the tyranny of the majority’ and that even democratic governments can be oppressive. Simply because democratic governments have a better track record in this regard, doesn’t mean that they can’t oppress. Indeed, the reason they have a better track record is that they operate on the assumption that power corrupts and that checks and balances should be in place to prevent any government from becoming too powerful.

Another problem with ‘the government is us’ argument is that it assumes that all levels of government exemplify the transparency we associate with democratic systems. Of course, this simply isn’t true. In the case of Captain America, a covert agency which trades in secrets and lies, has been given carte blanche to steer the administration in ways that aren’t democratic. By contrast, it is trying to stamp out dissent. Granted, this is an overstatement for dramatic effect in the film. Personally, I’m skeptical of the many conspiracy theories that are popularly associated with the libertarian movement. I don’t see government conspiracies and cover-ups everywhere. Nevertheless, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, one would have to be hopelessly naive to think that ‘the government is us’ or that such surveillance is good for democratic values. In fact, quite the opposite. As Snowden has said, the NSA even keeps track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography in case they need to damage their target’s reputation. This makes character assassination — if not actual assassination as in the film — a trivially easy matter. How is such meticulous control over the democratic process by unelected and unaccountable agencies healthy for any democracy? The Winter Soldier makes this point quite eloquently, albeit in the exaggerated way we’d expect of a comic book action movie. Still, we shouldn’t reject its core message due to its heightened dramatic sense.

In summary, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of those rare movies that works both as popcorn entertainment and deeper social and political commentary. Just as it urges us not to sacrifice freedom for security, it doesn’t sacrifice entertainment value for heavy-handed ideological messages. The underlying political philosophy is there if you want to see it, but is never distracting if you don’t. It’s definitely worth a watch.