Friday, April 04, 2014

Getting under your skin

You can just picture the meeting in a Hollywood studio.  The British director pitching his new, high concept movie to the moguls; Scarlett Johanssen drives round the streets of Glasgow in a Ford Transit picking up strange men. And it will be mostly improvised using a candid camera and real people. Yep, that would have been a short meeting.

So, why is 'Under the Skin' picking up such rave reviews from critics? It certainly seems to be ticking some boxes in film circles.  Some are comparing its director Jonathan Glazer to Stanley Kubrick, others see echoes of Nicholas Roeg's 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'.  And I can see why - it has long, slow, observational scenes, minimal dialogue, an eerie musique concrète soundtrack, and some startling visual effects scenes alongside the mundane imagery of Johanssen driving round drab Glaswegian streets.  One truly magical moment is when she finds herself caught in the whiteout of a highland haar - both an everyday experience for a Scot, but a moment of bewildered wonder for an alien. Experiencing the mundane as alien is perhaps the most Kubrick or Roeg like qualities of the film.

Thematically it also draws parallels to those two directors.  An alien in human guise, with uncertain (i.e. alien) motivations finds themselves drawn towards the human condition, but finds themselves still an outsider and not able to connect.  The hunter become the hunted, gender roles and power imbalances are exposed. And there is the bizarre, abstract opening scene of something like a human eye being assembled in darkness, back-lit by a single point of light as the eerie three note main theme is played on electronically re-touched strings (very reminscent of Ligeti's 'Lux Aeterna'  playing against the Star Gate sequence in Kubrick's 2001) while a woman's voice hesitatingly tests out out the phonemes of English, as if learning to speak the language for the first time.

And there is a vein of horror, as the men Johansson's nameless alien picks up are sucked into a black, oily liquid and eviscerated - for reasons unknown - leaving just the haunting image of their empty skins floating in a black void. Another scene on a beach is even more horrific, as an awful family tragedy unfolds and a futile but heroic attempt at rescue culminates in a dispassionate Johanssen clubbing to death the rescuer and leaving the family to their fate without a whisper of emotion or empathy.

Audiences may have been less enthralled than many of the critics - the ending eliciting a loud raspberry from the back of the cinema when I viewed it recently.  It has, nevertheless stuck in the top ten for several weeks at the UK box office, which is no mean feat for an arthouse science fiction film.  Many, no doubt went to see what promised to be an erotic thriller with Johansen 'getting her kit off for the lads'.  Well, there is plenty of quite explicit nudity (male and female), but I found it profoundly un-erotic.  Johansen inhabits her skin as an alien, not sure why her body affects men the way it does, but knowing that the effect is useful to her purpose and having an idea of the rules she must play by to lure in her victims.  The one sex scene is awkward and ultimately futile - her alien body is not designed the same way as ours, a reality already hinted at by apparently not needing (nor being able) to eat or sleep. She remains an outsider, unable to fully experience what it is to be human.

Other things stick out. Particularly Johanssen as the predator, picking up men with a mixture of faux innocence and sexual appeal.  It could only work that way round - Brad Pitt driving around picking up women the same way would just have been sickening and creepy in the wrong way.  This is much more unsettling - it is the promise of strings free sex with a beautiful and available woman that is the undoing of the men in the film, none of them stopping to question why she would be offering herself to them like this. And when the tables are reversed, it is male abuse of power and drive for sex that undoes Joahnssen's character. The film does not paint a pretty picture of male sexuality and attitudes to women.

Johanssen is the star of the film - none of the other characters being much more than ciphers.  She acts by face and body language (or its absence) more than voice (although her clipped, London vowels are convincing, she barely utters more than a few dozen lines of mostly improv dialogue) and is quite compelling, especially as she starts to unravel in the film's last act.  And it is as she changes, as she experiences human kindness, as she tries to show mercy to one of her victims, as she seeks human connection with another man who helps her, so it is that she becomes more vulnerable.  As she becomes more the woman she seems to be, so it is that she also succumbs to the power imbalances that disadvantage women in our society.  All this is conveyed in a flawless performance by an actress who was obviously unafraid to take real risks in taking on such a difficult role.

In some ways the film is an honourable failure - the lack of human interest or development in the other characters and the lack of backstory or motivation making it a hard watch for those used to more conventional cinema. There is also a distinct jarring between the science fictional and the (largely improvised and candid camera filmed) realistic scenes in Glasgow. 

But somehow, it does get under ones skin. Particularly compelling are the eerie and unsettling soundtrack that borders on sound effects rather than music in places, the stark but beautiful visuals, but above all the view of humanity, especially human (particularly, male) sexuality that it deconstructs so disturbingly. All in all an interesting film that will be talked about for years, and will be worth revisiting.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ancillary Justice

Every now and again I get interested in a book just because of a random review I stumble upon. But now I have a Kindle, it is also easy to just download a few sample chapters to see if it really is worth reading.

What I found here was the debut novel of Anne Leckie, Ancillary Justice which was getting a lot of buzz last autumn when it first came out.  The story opens with its (probably female) protagonist, Breq, on a wintery and brutal world acting with impulsive kindness to a former officer that she had served with in the armed forces of the aggressively expansionist Radchaai empire. It soon becomes apparent that Breq has hair trigger killer instincts, some interesting enhancements, and a lot of anger.  Thus far she is similar to the tough female killers that have populated science fiction novels from William Gibson to Iain M Banks for decades.

But Breq is rather unique - she is not what she once was. Literally. She was Justice of Toren, a massive troop carrying starship, most of whose soldiers were ancillaries, mind wiped prisoners of war, now slaved to the ship's Artificial Intelligence.  As a result, Justice of Toren sees the world through multiple eyes in multiple locations, and can speak (and indeed, sing) with literally thousands of voices. Only all that is now left of her is one, lone ancillary, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, out to avenge the death of all she once was and all she had once cared for. She is an AI in a human body trying fit into human society, with a quest for vengeance.

The multiple conversations and observations that her multiple self shared with her human officers and the citizens of a world recently 'annexed' by the Radchaai makes for fascinating reading, and when this is broken down in one particularly traumatic event about of a third of the way into the novel, we get a real sense of the loss, disorientation and fear that ensues for her/it.

All of this is interesting science fiction, set in a standard space operatic format and happily playing with all the usual tropes of the genre (vast empires, massive spaceships run by AIs, special weapons, exotic worlds, epic battles). But actually the novel is a lot more than this precis suggests. Exploring the nature of empire, imperial expansionism and the war crimes that are committed in the name of protecting that empire, it does what the best science fiction does and holds a mirror up to our own world. Lecke is American, but as a Brit I got at once the sense of an empire reaching the end of its expansion and the yearning for the glory days of old amongst the officer class (and their obsession with drinking tea!). One telling quote summarises the realisation that some of the Radchaai were coming to about the nature of their empire:
luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn't generally have to see that, if one doesn't wish.
Some amongst the Radchaai (a word that means 'civilised') are questioning the empire, and this hinges around two, appalling war crimes to which the Justice of Toren is both witness and contributor.  The tension between the conservative and progressive streams amongst the Radchaai are at the centre of the story.

Another interesting quirk of the narrative, and one that most reviewers (especially male reviewers) hone in on first is the use of gender. Radchaai culture and language make no apparent distinction between genders, using a single pronoun for either sex and no apparent differences in dress or social roles between male and female.  As a result, the non-human Breq struggles conceptually with languages and cultures that do make such distinctions. All characters are referred to in the feminine, except rarely where she must speak in other languages and to other cultures that do not make such distinctions, where we learn she regularly gets genders the wrong way round, causing much confusion and occasionally, offence! What this achieves is initially a sharp sense of confusion and dislocation in the reader, although by the end of the novel I had ceased to notice and was going with the flow.  It does ask the reader where her/his presuppositions about how we assume behaviour and social role will fall along gender lines, and how culturally prescribed these presuppositions are.

All this is done in a narrative that avoids too many space opera cliches that pander to the inner thirteen year old male of so many of the genre's fans. There is little violence (and when it does happen it is mostly 'off screen' and all the more disturbing for it), no sex or sexual tension (although Breq's underlying lack of humanity means she misses the cues that may be there).  Like Iain M Banks and Ken McLeod, Leckie is subverting the genre to look at political themes that this most politically conservative and masculine of all science fiction sub-genres generally eschews.

The book does end on an apparent anti-climax, but as it is the first book of a trilogy this is forgivable, leaving you at least wanting to know where it goes next. A strong start to a trilogy and an impressive debut novel. I look forward to the second volume out later this year.


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