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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My Favorite Superman Stories

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. The Last Son of Krypton has remained in continuous publication ever since, not to mention appearing on radio, television, and the movies. Speaking of movies, Superman also returns to the big screen this summer in Man of Steel. Since I’ve always been a Superman fan, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of my favorite Superman stories from the comics. This isn’t a ‘best of’ or ‘greatest stories ever told’ list. It’s a purely subjective look at some of my favorites, so if your favorite story isn’t on my list, feel free to add it in the comments.

1. Must There Be A Superman? (Superman #247, Jan 1972) Superman is a god-like figure, a secular messiah, and for most of his history, writers never questioned whether or not Superman’s presence on Earth was good for humanity. However, Elliot S! Maggin did just that in ‘Must There Be A Superman?’ In the story, The Guardians of the Universe (and founders of the Green Lantern Corps) confront Superman with the possibility that he is holding back humanity’s progress. They argue that humans have become too reliant on Superman and have failed to solve their own problems. Superman takes this idea to heart (at least for the duration of the issue) and experiments with a more hands-off approach. The details of the adventure are less important to me than the question it raises. If a god-like being did intervene in our world in seemingly beneficial ways, would that be an unqualified good? Nietzsche, who originally coined the term ‘superman’ (Übermensch), certainly didn’t think so.

2. For the Man Who Has Everything (Superman Annual #11, 1985) Alan Moore penned this classic story in which Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman visit the Fortress of Solitude for the Man of Steel’s birthday (or ‘firstday’, as they say on Krypton). However, when they arrive, they find him under the spell of a parasitic hallucinogenic plant, called the Black Mercy, that feeds its victims fantasies in exchange for feeding on their bio-aura. In Superman’s delusional state, he experiences his life on Krypton as it would have been if the planet had never been destroyed. As Batman and Robin try to free him from the Black Mercy, and Wonder Woman fights the villainous Mongul, fractures begin to appear in Superman’s fantasy and his idyllic dream becomes a nightmare as he resists the Black Mercy’s power. Philosophically speaking, the Black Mercy is a good stand-in for Nozick’s Experience Machine. Superman would rather live in reality than a pleasant fantasy. Nozick agrees and argues that in such a scenario, we should prefer reality to an artificial, albeit pleasurable, existence. Incidentally, ‘For the Man Who Has Everything’ was adapted for the animated series Justice League Unlimited. It’s an excellent episode in an excellent series!

3. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (Action Comics #423 and Superman #583, Sept 1986) Another Alan Moore story, this is a brilliant send-off to the Silver Age. Although it’s an ‘imaginary story’ (non-canonical) it’s become the more or less official end of Superman’s Silver Age career. The story is told from the perspective of Lois Lane (now Lois Elliot)  ten years after Superman has disappeared, presumed dead. This story takes a darker look at many of the admittedly silly aspects of Superman’s Silver Age continuity. The result is an emotional and ultimately tragic resolution for many favorite Superman characters. This entry in the Superman mythology is also noteworthy for asking ‘Must there be a Superman?’ As one of the characters comments in retrospect: “Superman? He was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get along without him.” In this way, Moore tacitly broaches the Superman-as-Savior motif that informed much of the character’s history to that point.

4. Red Son (Elseworlds, 2003) What would have happened if Superman’s rocket had landed in the Soviet Union instead of the American heartland? That’s the question that Mark Millar asks in Superman: Red Son. I like parallel universe stories and this is a great one. Superman has always stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, so it’s very interesting to see him standing for a completely different ideology. Nevertheless, Red Son is morally complex. It doesn’t degenerate into patriotic jingoism. Superman always believes he’s doing the right thing. Even Lex Luthor, the American scientist trying to assassinate Superman, is not a black and white hero or villain. I’m getting into spoiler territory here, but the way Luthor ‘defeats’ Superman with a piece of his home planet (no, not kryptonite) is brilliant. It’s a great read and there’s plenty of fodder for philosophical reflection.

5. All-Star Superman (All-Star Superman, #1 — 12 Nov 2005 — Oct 2008) I should begin with a confession: I’m not a big Grant Morrison fan. Within continuity, his work has a tendency to become a muddled mess, but when his imagination is given free reign, the result is arguably one of the best Superman stories in the character’s long history. All-Star is in the same spirit as Moore’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.’ It proposes a hypothetical conclusion to the Superman saga, one that not only brilliantly situates Superman within his own mythology, but within mythology more generally. It is a Joseph Campbell-esque tale of the trajectory of a hero. The story is full of imagination and manages to pay homage to the character’s past while simultaneously bringing a fresh perspective (something that comic books and pop culture in general doesn’t do very often). It also manages to be both a good introduction to the character for new readers and a rewarding experience for long-time fans.

Honorable Mention:

Superman for All Seasons

Kingdom Come

Peace on Earth

Well, there you have it. I have many more favorites, of course, but those are at the top of the list. Did I get it right? What’s your favorite Superman story?