Friday 14 March 2014

Vision on: "Under the Skin" and "The Zero Theorem" (ST 16/03/14)

Under the Skin (15) 108 mins ****
The Zero Theorem (15) 107 mins **

To describe Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin as an adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel would be misleading. Mutation might be more like it. This hybrid of sci-fi freakery, documentary cunning and pop-promo flair establishes its singularity from its first, abstract stirrings of light and darkness. Planets collide. Wormholes open up. Minutes pass before we realise we’ve been watching a process only Lasix patients will have recognised immediately: the construction of an eye. It’s an apt startpoint for a film eternally seeking out new ways of looking: at women, men and the human body; at Glasgow, Scarlett Johansson, and the courtship ritual.

Since 2000’s explosively verbal Sexy Beast, Glazer has been searching for a purely visual means of expression. He almost got there with 2004’s elegant chiller Birth; his latest pushes further still. Under the Skin initially exists as no more than a tension stemming from an incongruity: what is the glamorous Johansson doing driving a transit van through the crowds exiting Celtic Park? The character seems lost: she keeps stopping to pick up young men – many apparently unaware they’re on camera – for directions. These lads eye her up (a stock refrain: “yer gorgeous”), then disappear; it transpires this woman who fell to earth is an alien succubus, sent to dispatch her victims via a literal sinkhole of an estate.

You don’t need enhanced vision to spot how the premise contains intimations of misogyny. As in the recent Her, Johansson has been called upon to embody an avatar of femininity, rather than a woman per se: the siren whose call leads those looking to get their rocks off firmly onto the rocks. Yet somewhere along the line, this deadliest of first contacts becomes humanising. After she lets one disfigured passenger (Adam Pearson, an actor with neurofibromatosis) escape into the night, it becomes clear the film is reaching for something profound, and profoundly tender: the quantum evolutionary leap we take whenever we begin to look out for one another.

Where previous ad men and promo-makers have traditionally traded in indiscriminate flash, Glazer’s precision imagery pitches up on the intersection of realism and surrealism: the film exudes the uncanny fascination of a UFO parked outside a Londis. This director can stage a stunning widescreen setpiece, as with the sequence that sees the alien looking on as a couple are caught in a riptide while trying to rescue their dog, but he also knows to leave in the one detail (the pair’s 18-month-old son, screaming unattended on the shore as the sun sets on the scene) that will linger in the mind for days, and nights.

Amid the horror, there is, too, a delight in looking comparable to The Great Beauty, but where that film glided serenely across Rome’s gilded surfaces, Glazer’s gaze is more clinical: it peels back reality to expose those strange and sublime forces at play in the universe. Both hypnotic and needling, Under the Skin renders the whole world, from the girls in Greggs to a televised Tommy Cooper routine, as other as its heroine, thereby opening up a philosophical exploration of who we really are. That, emerging as it does from within the British film industry’s oft-blinkered confines, should strike any eye as a significant achievement.

Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem likewise qualifies as a vision of sorts, but it’s messier and less stirring: the questions it prompts are of the “what’s on next door?” variety. The former Python’s distaste for the chaos of modern life found its best expression in 1985’s Brazil. Here, he’s done rather too good a job of illustrating how that clutter has ramped up with time. Compensating for a generally under-budgeted look, this futuristic fantasia’s every frame has been overloaded with babbling screens and fancy-dressed extras on rollerskates. The significance of bald numbercruncher Christoph Waltz’s quest for inner peace just gets lost in the cacophony.

Odd flourishes recall the Gilliam of yore: Matt Damon, ever-chameleonic, shows up as a corporate overlord wearing a zebraskin suit indistinguishable from the armchair he’s installed himself in. Elsewhere, a wiggy David Thewlis surfs the cartoonish tumult in a way the squirmingly uncomfortable Waltz and Mélanie Thierry’s icky, fetish-figure love interest never manage. Yet these are rare dabs of distinction in an otherwise maddening splurge. The cosmic black hole Gilliam’s camera keeps circling becomes a visual analogue for the film entire: how disappointing that something capable of generating such relentless movement at its edges should offer no more, at its centre, than a glimpse of oblivion.

Under the Skin and The Zero Theorem open in selected cinemas from today.

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