“We wanted to create a space that felt alien, but in the knowledge that you’re limited by the fact that you’re doing it using human imagination… So then you’re kind of in dream space, or nightmare… You’re trying to get to places that are more felt than thought.”–Jonathan Glazer
PLOT: An alien comes to Earth and assumes the form of a human woman. She drives around Scotland in a van, picking up unattached single men with no families and taking them back to her lair, where she performs a bizarre ritual that eventually consumes them. After an encounter with a deformed man, she decides to go rogue and flees to the countryside, pursued by an overseer on a motorcycle.
The movie was in development for more than a decade.
Many of the scenes were filmed documentary style, with Johansson (unrecognizable in a wig with sunglasses) walking around Scottish streets and shopping malls. Some of the men who entered the van were not actors, but were being filmed without their knowledge. It’s been reported that the team shot over 270 hours of total footage.
PLOT: An alien in the form of a beautiful woman skulks around Glasgow in a white van hunting for single men, whom she collects for some unknown but supposedly nefarious purpose. Eventually she becomes confused by her own temporary humanity, and her physical body starts to shut down.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With an acute vision and a puzzling but highly rewarding plot, Under the Skin is easily among the best of 2014, and may well turn out to be the weirdest. The action moves slowly, but is filled with wonderfully bizarre imagery and powerful space-y scoundscapes. Its storytelling is inventive, and nothing is obvious.
COMMENTS: Under the Skin opens with abstract images of space and birth, with the sounds of a woman learning to talk played over the ambient score. An unnamed biker pulls a dead woman into a van, in which a naked Scarlett Johansson takes on her appearance, and her clothing. The next day, she begins her unexplained quest for bodies, driving around and innocently asking for directions while slyly prying into her prey’s background. If they have girlfriends or family, or are on their way to meet friends, she leaves, but if she determines them to be alone and single, she invites them back to her weird abandoned-looking house. Entranced by her beauty, they follow her blindly until they are absorbed into the floor, sinking into black goo. When she comes upon a disfigured young man (Adam Pearson), she falters in her single-minded mission, and begins to look for human experiences, though she is generally unable to understand them.
Adamantly maintaining a “show, don’t tell” attitude, Jonathan Glazer teases his audience with nibbles of information, encouraging us to assemble the puzzle pieces ourselves. This type of storytelling forces us to carefully consider every image presented, questioning characters’ unstated motives and giving a close reading to each scene. The movie is almost palpably quiet, relying little on dialogue and offering a mix of natural background noise and unearthly music, leaving a lot of room for inner thought to fill in the stillness. We must connect how the silent biker is related to Scarlett Johansson’s character, what purpose the abducted men serve, what prompts the protagonist to abandon her hunt, and why she seems to be struggling with her alien body. All of this information is made available to us, if we pay attention. Every shot is precise and deliberate, with many scenes carefully constructed through the use of hidden cameras—so many of the men interacting with Johansson are at first unaware that they are in a movie. There is an intriguing combination of gritty, rainy urban areas, dark but lush forests, and weird alien spaces, plus the juxtaposition of hidden-camera verism and sci-fi unreality. It is at once unsettling, confusing, exciting, and utterly compelling.
This is, for the most part, understated weirdness. Glazer’s non-expository, matter-of-fact style belies how inventive the film’s approach really is. He reveals an alien’s view of our world, and often makes humanity as strange to his audience as it is to his protagonist. The men’s thickly-accented, slang-ridden speech is often confusing (to this American viewer, that is), and common human rituals are made to appear odd. Why do we wear make-up? Or eat chocolate cake? Or have sex? An extended sequence shows a family spending time on a rocky beach, but the parents leave their toddler on the shore as they swim out to save their drowning dog. The protagonist watches this dramatic scene from afar, a nonpartisan observer, not so much uncaring as she is disengaged, never moved to help or hinder because their plight just isn’t related to her. Even the considerable nudity is approached with a sense of detachment, and made to be completely nonsexual despite the context. Though her origins are never actually mentioned, there is no doubt she is an alien creature, a hunter given human form but never made to understand the person she inhabits. The sick joke is that while visually she embodies the human equivalent of prey—female, beautiful, small, alone—inwardly she is a powerful predator. Under the Skin is a strange and dark thriller that manages to wryly comment on gender stereotyping and (straight) sexual relations without actually delivering any kind of message. As a film, as a story, as a work of art, it simply is.
FEATURING: David Bowie, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Rip Torn
PLOT: An extraterrestrial visits earth in search of water, but becomes distracted by alcohol, television, corporate politics, and a tempestuous relationship with a human woman.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Roeg’s usual penchants for nonlinear storytelling and rich, occasionally disturbing imagery are stretched to their breaking points here; the resulting film is not always coherent or consistent, but it is fascinating and intermittently very weird.
COMMENTS: Only Nicolas Roeg would have taken a story roughly in the vein of Starman or E.T. and turned it into this. Instead of falling into a facile, friendly relationship with earth’s inhabitants, Roeg’s spaceman, Thomas Jerome Newton, is afflicted with a severe case of culture shock. Struggling to simultaneously save his faraway family and understand human behavior, he ends up failing at both, and the film traces out his steep rise-and-fall arc with a plot so disorientingly scrambled that it sometimes threatens to become stream-of-consciousness.
Through this frenzied editing style, we’re witness to Newton’s past, present, and future, although it’s rarely clear which is which at any given moment. This extreme nonlinearity conveys the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land, as flashbacks bleed readily into the film’s putative reality or its characters’ fantasies; however, this also tends to make plot developments foggy and render motivations obscure. In this sense, it’s a very messy film, often more interested in delving into Newton’s frazzled interior logic than in aiding the viewer’s comprehension. Stretched with epic sweep over 138 minutes, the film’s detours and repeated segments (like that of the spaceship crashing) can get frustrating, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is more about visceral sensory experiences and emotional intuition than narrative flow.
Under those terms, the film is a qualified success. Newton’s skyrocketing financial fortunes, his dalliance with a sweet small-town girl named Mary Lou (Clark), his alcohol-driven decline, and his subsequent institutionalization are all tightly interwoven, delineating a tragic, decades-long trajectory. The tragedy is further illustrated by the interspersed snippets of memory and fantasy, including a violent musical interlude set to the song “Hello Mary Lou” that recalls the “Memo to Turner” scene from Performance. Also like Performance (and the rest of Roeg’s early films), The Man Who Fell to Earth abounds with graphic sexuality, which becomes one more avenue for Newton’s experimentation with life on earth. Both formally and morally, this film is tailor-made to offend conservative sensibilities.
The film’s mounting transgressions are compounded by the way that Bowie’s cadaverous, androgynous body blurs the line between human and alien, especially during the lengthy sex scenes. His star power and otherworldly aura make the film’s sci-fi conceits believable, since with his shock of unnaturally red hair, his eyes (which are different two colors), and even his British accent—which stands out against the voices of his American costars—Bowie is believably not of this world, and when he chooses to remove his human skin and eyes, the outcome is only marginally stranger than the his original appearance. As he changes from freshly arrived naïf to contaminated wino, Bowie anchors the film, his intractable presence acting as a counterpoint to Roeg’s flighty direction.
Since Roeg speaks in such an indecipherable visual language, it’s hard to know what to make of The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s partly a spaced-out parable about capitalism and chemical dependence, and possibly a satire of the rags-to-riches American success story. Although it drags on too long and is often unfulfilling, it’s still inexplicably captivating. When it’s all over and the poor man is stuck here on earth, you’re left with a film that’s as enigmatic, tormented, and unexpectedly beautiful as the pale face of Bowie himself.