3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
An Opaque Adaptation: High-Quality SF Film That Perhaps Tells Too Little....
, 19 July 2014
This review is from: Under The Skin [DVD]  (DVD)
Please note that this review may contain spoilers and is primarily aimed at SF readers and amazon customers confused about the genre status of the film.
'Under the Skin' is an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Michel Faber. Despite always having been marketed and packaged as a work of mainstream/general fiction, 'Under the Skin' is definitively SF, using ideas commonplace in genre SF (i.e. the science fiction that arose in the US pulp magazines) - it owes huge debts to "Shambleau" (a short story by C L Moore circa 1933) and Damon Knights' "To Serve Man", published in the mid 1950s, later adapted into an episode of the TV series 'The Twilight Zone'. The aliens in the book reminded me of a story by Molly Gloss published in the 1990s - for the record, Gloss has a literary prose style, as does Faber. Despite the fact that Faber is a superb writer, readers unversed in written SF should be aware that high-quality prose is not uncommon in genre circles, despite what the sunday supplements might have you believe.
I mention all this as the novel was received as being staggeringly original by critics unfamiliar with SF - which is a little embarrassing, as it is even possible to compare the book to shlock gore SF films such as Norman J. Warren's 'Prey' and the Harry Davenport's 'Xtro'. Had 'Under the Skin' been adapted very faithfully from the novel, it would not have enjoyed the critical attention it has from mainstream cineastes.
For those who have read the book, you'll enjoy this version up to a point, but the key subtext of the novel - a strong message around the issues of vivisection, vegetarianism and animal rights - is pretty much missing from the film. The altered physicality of the central character, her co-farmers and the elite son of the company employing the aliens on Earth are missing...except by implication, when the farmers are replaced in the film by a mysterious motorcyclist.
The film is visually stunning, beautifully made throughout, with an excellent score and some very inventive adaptive uses of the basic scenario of the novel. However, it is very light on dialogue, has no spoken or title card exposition, so it very much shows rather than tells the audience what is going on. As laudable as this is, this does make the film difficult to read for audiences unfamiliar with the book and with SF in general. In fact, my personal opinion is that without the blurb on the BD/DVD case and the publicity around the film in the form of reviews etc, many people who have 'understood' the film would not have understood it if exposed to it spontaneously i.e. if the film was shown to them without warning.
In other words, there is no -or very little - infodump here. The audience is told nothing, but shown imagery, which it then has to interpret. This is healthy and quietly challenging, but it does render the film a little opaque. In fact, I'm wondering if the director wanted to avoid the potential embarrassment that he was making an SF film in the fear that an 'intelligent' audience would be put off before watching it. Sadly, this kind of snobbery still exists in relation to SF in the minds of many of the chattering classes.
There is clearly a huge fear of incisive, conceptual dialogue in many arthouse SF/slipstream films these days, which results in opaque movies that can come across as being hugely pretentious. For all their positive aspects, this bedevils films like 'A Field in England' and 'Berberian Sound Studio', which begin well and then seem merely self-indulgent as time goes on. Even Brandon Cronenberg's 'Antiviral' suffers a little from this. Looking at arthouse SF by Tarkovsky, Cronenberg and Roeg, you'll find they had no issue with inserting some expository dialogue into their films. Of course, they had human protagonists and Cronenberg in particular is arguably the finest SF writer/director ever to work in cinema. but comparisons between 'Under the Skin' and Roeg's 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' are valid here, as the former has been cited numerous times by those reviewing 'Under the skin' positively.
So the film of 'Under the Skin' perhaps aims to make the same point 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' does, but of course Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) does come clean with Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) about what is really going on. I'm not saying that 'Under the skin' doesn't work without such infodump, but it is more inaccessible and alienating (no pun intended) to many viewers. I'm also not convinced that all those viewers who enjoyed the film have picked up on all the ideas implied and shown in the feature, which are of course explicit in the novel.
Having said all this, admirers of serious SF will absolutely love this film: I know I did. But other comments here referring to late, derivative works like 'Species' are spot on in their identification of concepts, if off in failing to cite more seminal works.
My worry is that screenwriters/directors with serious intentions are perhaps too afraid to come clean and admit that what they are producing is SF. Until more intelligent SF that combines showing and telling (both valid ways of telling stories rich with metaphor and message), there is the danger that we'll have a lot more emperors' new clothes and not enough bold conceptualising. My won feeling is that if it ever gets a theatrical/disc release in the UK, the film of Philip K. Dick's 'Radio Free Albemuth' will raise the bar for SF cinema far above even 'Under the Skin', which, despite my misgivings, I thoroughly enjoyed.
Stephen E Andrews, author, '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels'
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