Under the Skin – LFF Film Review

Under the Skin

Under the Skin is not a film trying to make things easy on its audience so the synopsis I have come up with here is only as accurate as I can hope to get after just one viewing. Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien who has landed in Scotland and taken human form. In order to maintain her appearance she must kidnap and dissolve human beings she finds along her way.

Capturing human beings does not prove difficult for an alien with Scarlett Johansson’s face. In cheap clothes she drives around the streets in a white van asking for directions until she finds a man who won’t be missed and who is willing to follow her home. Once in her surreal home the men follow Johansson inside on the promise of sex but soon realise that lovemaking is not on the cards. The visuals involved in this act are sublime and surreal and I really don’t want to spoilt them for you. Suffice to say that this is low budget Sci-Fi at its best and the focus is on atmosphere and imagery rather than fancy gadgetry or boring exposition.

While the opening shot is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as we see some abstract shapes come together slowly to form an eye, the rest of the film has more of a The Man Who Fell to Earth feel about it though with much less dialogue and without being nearly so awful. The setting of the film is Scotland and we are mostly shown busy roads and foggy countryside rather than gleaming spaceships. All we ever see of anything resembling and alien craft is an expanse of either black or white space. If the devil is in the detail this sparse production design is positively heavenly.

At the heart of the film we are seeing our world through the eyes of an alien and the perception clearly is that we can be easily exploited through our greatest weakness – men’s desire for women. Johansson’s alien’s survival depends solely on the fact that men will find her beautiful and want to instantly have sex with her. The proof of the film’s concept is that not all the men involved were actors and that Johansson actually drove around Glasgow in the van, disguised by a short dark wig and English accent, and real men gladly got in with her. Man’s almost animalistic desire for sex is our downfall in Under the Skin and ultimately is what brings about the film’s conclusion.

A surreal and lyrical experience Under the Skin is not Sci-Fi for those who like space battle and explosions but for those who like a unique look at the human condition. This is very much Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction though a special brand that strips back even the dialogue and prioritises atmosphere and visuals (not just visual effects). Scarlett Johansson has clearly taken a risk in appearing in a British Sci-Fi film but it has most definitely paid off thanks to excellent work from director Jonathan Glazer.

Under the Skin does not yet have a UK release date.

BFI London Film Festival 2013

About Time – Film Review

About Time

Having seen About Time over a week ago I seemed to spend a lot of time this past weekend bringing it up in conversation so I think it deserves a few words from me over here.

About Time comes from writer/director Richard Curtis who has spent his career teaching us to expect well written and genuinely funny romantic comedies as rich English people fall in love with a few pitfalls along the way. About Time doesn’t stray too far from this template but is notable for being Curtis’ first foray into Sci-Fi as he dabbles with some time travel (let’s ignore Doctor Who and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol for now).

After turning 21 Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family can time travel simply by going into a dark enclosed space and thinking about a specific moment from their past. Any complicated time travel mechanics or rules are eschewed in favour of a more simplistic approach so that the focus can be on the story and the characters rather than any Sci-Fi nonsense. Tim uses his new power mostly to fix social situations and in the romantic pursuit of a young American woman called Mary (Rachel McAdams) who catches his eye in a pitch black restaurant. The focus of the story would seem to be the romance between Tim and Mary but what has been lingering with me ever since was the relationship between Tim and his father. That is where the heartstrings were really tugged and the tear ducts lubricated.

With the presence of a Sci-Fi plot device and a focus on emotions and character over the fictional science I know what you are asking yourself… Is this HeKniSciFi? A quick look at Rachel McAdams cardigan should tell you all you need to know:

About Time - Domhall Gleeson & Rachel McAdams

Just look at how warm she looks!

About Time is a flawed film. The time travel logic doesn’t always make any sense, or stick by its own loose rules, and the central love story is charming but a little bland. Somehow though none of this matters. The mechanism of the time travel is not what is important to Curtis (or me) nearly so much as the impact that the time travel has on Tim and his relationships. Though this supernatural plot device Tim is taught that there are certain things in life that can’t be changed, that sometimes bad things have to happen, and that there comes a time to let go. Time travel here is as it always should be, servicing the film but not dominating it. And as for the lacklustre love story… the world’s best father-son relationship more than makes up for that.

Richard Curtis isn’t making a time travel film with the intention of boggling your mind, all he wants to do is warm your heart and he succeeds here with flying colours. I very nearly cried (tears may have formed but they did not fall) and that is no mean feat. While the characters may seem unrelatable with their large homes and clipped English accents but Curtis has a way of reaching past this and touching you regardless. Unintentionally creepy metaphor there…

Moving away from any insinuation of Richard Curtis molesting his audience I’ll take a paragraph to compliment the supporting cast which includes great performances from the likes of Tom Hughes, Vanessa Kirby, Will Merrick, Richard Cordery, Lindsay Duncan, Lydia Wilson, and the fantastic Tom Hollander. We are also treated to a few brief appearances from Margot Robbie who is a rising star and has been troubling me since her Neighbours days.

About Time - Margot Robbie

Bill Nighy completely steals the show in a film best watched snuggling with a loved one on a rainy day. Fathers and sons will get the most out of it though may prefer not to snuggle while they watch. Leave any cynicism at home and enjoy what will become a staple film in my collection and try not to think how good the film would have been had Zooey Deschanel not dropped out.

Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction, Introducing a Sub-genre

Every now and then I discover a specific sub-genre of film in which so many of my favourite films fit. Sadly these sub-genres don’t actually exist so it is up to me to name and define them. I’ll start with a sub-genre I’ve mumbled about in the past; Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction or HeKniSciFi for short.

What are you talking about?
Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction covers all of those films in which there is a strong science fiction element at the crux of the plot and the film’s main focus is on the emotions of the characters rather than the fictional science itself.

Science Fiction tends to be quite futuristic, have a cast of characters in form-fitting clothing, and the futuristic technology is sleek and shiny. In a HeKniSciFi film the characters do tend to be wearing a lot of knitwear (just look at the image above) and the technology is often much more rustic. It is the difference between a man in Lycra on a spaceship travelling through time and a man in a sweater on a farm travelling through time and being emotional about it.

Sci-Fi has science fiction driving the plot throughout whereas HeKniSciFi takes the science fiction as a catalyst and then concerns itself with focussing on how miserable everyone is (in the best possible way.) Budgets are lower; you can expect a lot more wood and natural fibres in the furnishings in a HeKniSciFi and infinitely fewer explosions.

What’s wrong with Science Fiction?
Absolutely nothing! Did I say there was anything wrong with Science Fiction? You are being very defensive.

My only issue is that I think the term Sci-Fi automatically conjures up an image of humanoid aliens and galaxies far, far away and doesn’t accurately represent the full spectrum of the genre. Later I will list films that fall within HeKniSciFi and I hope that you will agree that while they contain fictional science they are a far cry from Sci-Fi.

Give me an example
A good comparative example comprises of Michael Bay’s 2005 action adventure film The Island and Mark Romanek’s 2011 indie drama Never Let Me Go. A look at a still from each film should give a good idea of what I am writing about:

The top image shows the leads in The Island, the bodysuits just scream Sci-Fi while the second image of three young adults with wavy hair could be taken from any indie drama of recent years. And yet they have the same plot. Both feature individuals in a secluded society who discover that they are clones who will eventually have their organs harvested when someone in the outside world needs them.

In The Island the clones live in an underground compound, wear tight white bodysuits, and upon discovering the truth go an adventure to find their real selves while being chased by a mercenary. As this is Michael Bay you can rest assured that explosions and fast bikes are included.

In Never Let Me Go the clones are brought up in an English boarding school, wear heavy knitwear, and upon discovering the truth do very little about it. While they do have a day trip to find one of their real selves the focus of the film is on the central love triangle. There are no explosions beyond Andrew Garfield shouting on a beach.

The Island is a glossy product, one in which Bay tries to keep you entertained and does not worry too much about the emotion side of the story. In Never Let Me Go everything is that little bit more textured and the characters are brought much more to the surface. The Island is shiny metal and Never Let Me Go is scuffed wood. The Island is Sci-Fi and Never Let Me Go is HeKniSciFi.

What other films fit the genre?
Other films in this genre include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a man wipes his memory of a past love and in doing so relives their relationship), Another Earth (a young woman falls in love with a man whose family she accidentally killed while a second Earth appears in the sky), Womb/Clone (a woman gives birth to a clone of her dead boyfriend and experiences confusing emotions), and Cold Souls (an actor literally swaps his soul to better act in a Chekhov play). In each of these films there is a fictional technology at the film’s core but our focus is on the emotions of the lead character. They all feature heavy knitwear too but that is not an essential requirement.

The next time you see a low-budget film with a high concept and a chunky jumper just think about it. Are you watching Sci-Fi or HeKniSciFi? Does Looper fit the bill or Safety Not Guaranteed? Discuss.

Another Earth – Review

Another Earth may be a high concept Sci-Fi in its synopsis, a film exploring the idea of there being a second identical Earth within our solar system, but the execution is on a much more low-key, character driven level. And all the better for it.

Driving home from a party, Rhoda (Brit Marling) hears on the radio that a planet identical to our own has been discovered. Squinting into the sky to have a look for herself Rhoda drives at full speed into another car, killing the mother and child inside and leaving the husband in a coma. After four years in prison she returns to civilization as Earth 2 looms ever closer. While trying to apologise to John (William Mapother) whose family she killed, Rhoda instead begins working for him as a cleaner before growing closer to John over time. Meanwhile contact between the two Earths is established and so it is discovered that everyone on our planet also exists up on the alternative planet. Did the alternative version of Rhoda also kill John’s family?

With its low-budget and a focus on the effects of a Sci-Fi worthy event on the characters, rather than on the event itself, makes Another Earth a perfect fit for my Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction* genre so expertly defined by Never Let Me Go. There is no time wasted exploring why Earth has a twin or on the inevitable first exploratory shuttle trip. We only learn about the fantastical event through coverage on the news and gossip between family members. This human touch makes the film all the more believable, debut director Mike Cahill wisely knows that the less you explain something, the less explanations the audience wants.

Speaking of Cahill, he has a beautiful eye. So much of Another Earth could be framed and put up on the wall, its textured look is pleasing to the eye and not bogged down in too much dialogue and what dialogue there is has a natural sound. The film may not feature as much heavy knitwear as Never Let Me Go but it certainly embodies that aesthetic; rough to the touch but comforting all the same.

Brit Marling plays Rhoda with a real complexity, a woman trying to atone for her sins, yet somehow by doing so is committing a selfless act. One act in particular which could be seen as one of love is in fact the cruellest she could have committed… after killing someone’s family of course. Holding up the other end of the film is William Mapother as the man who has lost everything. When we first see Mapother he is a man with nothing left to live for, a man who has given up, and through his relationship with Rhoda we see him rebuilt as a human being. The transition is sweet to watch, but the looming discovery of Rhoda’s true identity leaves the audience fearing for his sanity.

Barring a few pretentious moments courtesy of a self-harming janitor, Another Earth is a flawless film that is tender, tense and beautiful. The film essentially washes over the audience and all you need do is simply sit back and let it in. Arguably the Sci-Fi element could have been explored a little more but for me the human story at the centre was more than enough to fill a film.

Another Earth is a treat for any fan of independent cinema and has more emotional weight than most tent-pole blockbusters (and plenty of Oscar contenders too).

*Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction = Any film with a science fiction plot which focuses more on character than plot, and has characters wearing thick jumpers rather than jumpsuits.

Womb – Review

In Womb Eva Green and Matt Smith are childhood sweethearts who meet up again once they’re all grown up. Cue a tragic accident and suddenly Eva Green is pregnant with a clone of her former lover. The rest of the two hours are filled with weird relationships and uncomfortable moments.

Womb is similar to Never Let Me Go in that it features a scientific advancement that forms the basis of the plot while focusing on people’s relationships and heavy knitwear. It also shares Peter Wight and Lesley Manville from Another Year as Smith’s parents which is amusing if you see both films within a few days of one another.

Womb is slow, tragic and beautiful. It’s certainly not an easy watch and isn’t necessarily what you’d call enjoyable but certainly provides an interesting watch. If you aren’t squirming in your seat and debating the morality of what you’re watching then you’re not watching it right. This is not a date movie, and certainly not one to watch with your parents. Lovely directing though the dialogue could perhaps do with some work.

After the film writer/director Benedek Fliegauf, Leslie Manville and Peter Wight did a short Q&A session, which consisted of Mike Leigh comparisons and the question of why it had to end the way it did. Fliegauf described the film as a fairy tale rather than a sci-fi, the different apprently being an emphasis on emotions rather than the dynamics of the fictional science.

In conclusion Womb is a good film, just not one I’d actually like to recommend to someone. Luckily the UK distribution is not yet sorted so you’ll have to wait to see Matt Smith run naked into the sea.

Never Let Me Go – Review

Never Let Me Go is science fiction to its core and yet mostly consists of beautiful people in heavy knitwear in old houses. Because while there is indeed a fictional piece of science involved, the focus is on humans, emotions and violin music playing in the background.

In short the film follows Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield through their time at an unusual boarding school and through early adulthood as they discover themselves and the real world. Never Let Me Go is sad, beautiful and questions the nature of souls and the ethics of… something I won’t reveal. The film slowly unveils its plot and I’m not going to ruin that here.

All you need to know that this is not a cheery film, but it is gorgeous and features everyone’s favourite Spiderman. Knightley haters will even find themselves with little to complain about. Amazing to think this was made in just a few weeks for £15 million, long life Film4.

Never Let Me Go shares a similar plot to a certain Michael Bay film, but handles the issue in a distinctively British way which reminded me of a specific bit of Eddie Izzard material. Trust me after watching the film you’ll need a laugh.

Never Let Me Go is on general release 21st January 2011.