Opinion: Cinema in crisis can cling to “Under the Skin”

By Greg Bright

Since the premieres of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” television has been the superior art form for expressing and creating modern day pop culture.  Even big pop culture films quickly turn into series (Marvel, sequels, etc.). You’d think as a film buff this would worry me, but from what I’ve seen in the last 10 years, as cinema has been dwarfed by television, isn’t a lesser quality in film but instead a medium in the middle of an existential crisis.

Films are constantly pushing the boundaries of the medium, not in taste or morality, but instead in structure, trying to figure out what exactly makes cinema special. Few films have used this crisis better than Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.”

In terms of traditional Hollywood structure, “Under the Skin” would be called a minimalist work. It’s narrative is rather straight forward and simple. An alien (played by Scarlett Johansson) comes to the earth to prey on unsuspecting men for reasons unknown. The film is adapted from a novel of the same title, but the film follows the book’s narrative only abstractly. The film’s narrative sets the stage for a rather telling film that satirizes the state of current cinema, commenting on the natural duality of the camera verse the viewer.

The film’s most powerful scene involves our alien friend trying to seduce a surfer on the beach so that she can kill him. It appears to be going well until, off in the distance, a family is in peril. The wife of a young family swims out in currents to save her drowning dog but gets caught in the current. Her husband tries to save her, but he too gets caught out at sea. The surfer attempts to go in and help but to no avail. As this desperate scene turns tragic, our alien friend sits on the shore next to the family’s screaming young child as this man attempts to selflessly save people he doesn’t know.

As a viewer, you are naturally invested in the safety of these people, even as the camera sits stokely on our alien friend and even as she does nothing to help the situation. Through this, Glazer comments on the objectivity of the camera lens and the subjectivity of the viewer. A viewer can not separate themselves from their humanity in the same way that a camera can not be anything less than objective.

As the film progresses and our alien friend has a moment of humanistic sympathy: Her world becomes chaotic, dangerous and much more ‘Hollywood.’ As a viewer you become more invested in the character. It isn’t the objectivity of the camera that manipulates the viewer into creating an empathetic view of our character but instead the subjectivity of our viewer. We care more about the character as she becomes more like us.

Many people have called this film proof that we have an “heir to Kubrick” but instead I think we have a smarter filmmaker than Kurbick. Someone who realizes that the objectivity of  the camera is always limited by the subjectivity of the human audience.

More than any film in a long while, Glazer has created a statement on cinema that isn’t boring or pretentious but a wonderful film that I feel no guilt or remorse calling a masterpiece.