Up ‘n’ Under – a new wave of cinematic sci-fi?

under the skin

In the last year two films have appeared that have seemed visionary, movies which feel utterly distinctive and separate from one another, but which share a strange and encouraging connective tissue. Those films are Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. In many respects these two films are wholly different from one another. Tonally they are miles apart – Carruth’s movie goes for a fluid, sun-dappled grace while Glazer’s is gloomy, tense and foreboding, Upstream Color concerns itself with life cycles, companionship and synchronisation while Under The Skin is an essay in alienation – yet they share a kindred sense of exploration, inviting the audience to immerse themselves in a world void of exposition.

In this sense they are two of the most purely cinematic movies to have appeared in a while. The term ‘cinematic’ can be lazily bolted on to almost anything in movies, and is frequently misused to describe something that is merely artfully, even tastefully framed. That is not my intent here (though both films in question are beautiful to look at). No, I’m talking about these films being cinematic in terms of how they forefront the medium’s tools of communication – sound and vision.

Neither Upstream Color nor Under The Skin use dialogue as a crutch to convey their intent. Indeed, both films are notable for long stretches without speaking. Instead both Carruth and Glazer have chosen to use the medium as a tool for expression in a way that would’ve been impossible in, say, a radio play for example. They are both entities that exist purely as films. This is all the more intriguing in the case of Under The Skin, as the film is an adaptation of a novel. However, Glazer’s film is such a radical departure from Michel Faber’s book as to exist apart from it completely, expressing different notions and exploring different themes.

Carruth’s method of communication is a sort of collage – itself a stream of visual information that is passed in front of the viewer who is then expected to extrapolate meaning from the disparate, flowing images. This can prove daunting, but Carruth’s story is not overtly difficult to understand, and certainly no more complex than anything offered from the likes of Christopher Nolan for example. With Upstream Color, Carruth does not toy with chronology and rarely explores anything that might be read as a dream or simply ‘not real’. He, like Glazer, has simply removed the more lumpen signposts that usually guide us through narrative cinema.

Glazer’s story is far more simplistic in terms of narrative structure, and Under The Skin can be divided neatly in half, more or less – the first half concerning an alien being preying on humanity, the second half documenting ‘her’ evolving understanding of what being human can mean. But Glazer pointedly settles the viewer into a different rhythm, pitching us into his protagonist’s otherworldly head space through a variety of techniques, not least of which is a purely abstract overture designed to set us to a specific tempo. The pacing is slower than that of Upstream Color, but no less deliberate.

That other vital element of modern cinema – sound – is elemental to both pictures. With traditional exposition removed, both movies help to guide us through their stories with their audio tracks. Carruth’s own score is captivating, light as air, yet it hits emotional beats for us, becoming pointedly oppressive, for instance, when Jeff (Carruth) and Kris (Amy Seimetz) become disoriented by emotional responses that they can’t explain. Glazer’s Under The Skin is equally as communicative with its score. Mica Levi’s rich music chatters with half-received signals, suggestive of other-worldly thoughts travelling through Scarlett Johannson’s mind, while a recurring two-step beat keys us into her methodical approach to the hunt. Later, a lush swirl of synths create an audio whirlpool as she encounters emotional complexities, even love.

These cues all stand out, and in traditional movies might have seemed heavy-handed. Here, however, they help to define shape and intent and are key tools of communication for both Carruth and Glazer. The films may tell very different stories, but the methods employed show a pronounced attempt to engage the viewer and ask their participation.

upstream color

In an era of increasingly chaotic and busy media, this deliberate attempt to alter how we approach narrative storytelling is a welcome provocation. So often we hear of dumbing-down in modern cinema, of how spoonfed our culture has become, as though we have settled into lives of perpetual channel-hopping. Meat sacks who require everything spelled out to us as fast as possible so that we can consume it and move on.

Upstream Color and Under The Skin move against that tide, asking us to pay attention and offering us thoughts and images to ruminate on. I watch a lot of movies and I saw Under The Skin on a sunny Saturday afternoon. By that evening I had some free time and was ready to fill it with another movie. I started watching Arbitrage on Netflix but had to turn it off after 15 minutes because I realised I was still caught up in Glazer’s film and I wasn’t paying this traditional thriller any attention whatsoever. It ended up taking several days for Under The Skin to settle in my mind, so thoroughly bewitching were it’s offerings. I had the same reaction to Upstream Color; a kind of enveloping preoccupation.

Is it too early or too optimistic of me to hope that these films might be the start of a new wave of science fiction cinema that takes a literally cinematic approach to storytelling? If this is the beginning of a new tide of expressive filmmaking then we could be heading toward a renaissance in the genre, one which could have a wider influence on other genres. The question then becomes whether mass audiences would be ready or willing to accept movies in more traditional genres that openly ask for their involvement?

The obvious argument there brings us back to Christopher Nolan, whose Memento and Inception in particular have been praised for their intricacies and are generally embraced as great pieces of intelligent entertainment. Yet being narratively complex is not what I’m talking about here. Nolan’s films feel like rigid, immovable constructions. Intense skyscrapers. What Upstream Color and Under The Skin offer us are malleable experiences which we can each imprint with our own definitions. A quality which makes the films feel beautifully personal to the viewer and keeps them lingering long in the mind.

Films like these seem all-too-rare, but maybe the margins are where they are always destined to live? Could you imagine a Marvel superhero movie, for instance, that attempted to travel in the same fluid, intuitive stream as Under The Skin or Upstream Color? Perhaps these more unusual, beguiling movies are best savoured as occasional delicacies? Perhaps that is why we appreciate them all the more.

Neither film exists in a bubble, and both have their influences (Upstream Color feels tonally similar to Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of LifeUnder The Skin is drawing frequent comparisons to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) and yet their appearance so close together suggests the beginning of a cultural shift, an exploration of some very fertile ground. Excitingly (and fittingly for science fiction) it feels as if the future is being made in front of our very eyes.

4 Replies to “Up ‘n’ Under – a new wave of cinematic sci-fi?”

  1. So happy to have (belatedly) come across this blog entry–I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. If you’re up for it, it may be fun to delve deeper in conversation with one another. For what it’s worth, here’s a blog I wrote that *touches* on some of what you address here:
    The Future in the Past of the Present: Visions of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2014

    1. Thanks for the positive response. Your link is very interesting. As a Mad Men fan myself, it’s satisfying to see someone picking apart the feelings that were conjured linking some of the first half of season 7 to 2001: A Space Odyssey – a connection I certainly felt when watching those episodes. 2001 does definitely resonate through modern cinema and is arguably the most influential science fiction film ever made. I feel as though Kubrick was provoking other filmmakers, but for the most part what followed was either imitation, parody or theft. These recent ‘smaller’ films, however, seem to have connected to Kubrick’s dare. In continuing the conversation they inevitably echo the original. Or maybe I’m rambling…

      1. Not rambling at all. Those were very much the feelings–or the “structure of feeling”–I was trying to get at in my post. I think Upstream Color belongs to the same conversation, but it’s a lot more difficult to connect than the films I mentioned that have some explicit references from 2001. That may very well be due to the fact that, as you point out, the Malick-y elements of Upstream Color really dominate cinematically. But even these call back to the “one giant leap for mankind” Kubrick made with that match-cut from the bone to the spaceship, allowing a “pure” cinematic language to present a millions-years-long story in a matter of seconds. And, of course, that story is not determined or detailed so much as *suggested* in the gap of the cut, completely in line with what you eloquently call “malleable experiences which we can each imprint with our own definitions.”

        Notably, after seeing Under the Skin, I pretty much immediately emailed some friends to at some point watch Upstream Color & Under the Skin back-to-back as a double feature. We still haven’t done it (our last double-feature was Contempt & Mulholland Dr, which was brilliant), but I hope that seeing these two films again opens up some of what you & I both seem to be getting at, both cinematically and thematically. I think a significant part of the latter resonance is due to both films’ exploration of the alienated thrown-ness of their characters, without ever tying it all up neatly in a coherent web of purpose. In a sense, for both films the “purpose” is not found or given, but must be made by the characters’ own struggles. This may account for the vacuousness that pervades both Upstream Color and Under the Skin, and seems to me to connect them both back to 2001. Of course, they end very differently with Upstream Color making a case for a kind of solidarity (which friends of mine bemoaned as echoing the end of Tree of Life–I see their point, but disagree) and Under the Skin ending with a brutal, senseless murder. But they don’t have to end the same way in order to be understood as exploring the similar problems, both cinematically and socially.

        One last thing: I also think your point about sound is spot-on. Upstream Color comes across as a movie that is very much about Shane Carruth’s experience scoring a film, and the recording, composition, and playing of sound is a very significant part of the story of the film–from worms to pigs to humans. The soundtrack for Under the Skin has been critically acclaimed, and is a major part of the powerful atmospheric experience of the film. For me, the aesthetic of both films shares something with the work of Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never. Do you know those artists? Have you listened to their albums?

  2. I have Tim Hecker’s Virgins, and some scattered Oneohtrix Point Never tracks but haven’t dipped into any albums fully. However there are ‘similar’ artists who I do listen to with regularity; Fennesz, Stars Of The Lid, Deathprod (in fact a large number of RuneGrammofon artists). I’m a sucker for that indefinable, haunting style (though SOTD are more graceful), call it modern composition, ‘dark ambient’, plain-old regular ambient, or any other similarly unsatisfying label. Recently been giving Howard Shore’s music for Maps To The Stars a fair bit of time also.

    In fact, like the films discussed above, these artists and others create music that you can colour with your own moods and characteristics, which is not to say that the music itself is blank – far from it – but that it allows within it the possibility to be reformed by the listener. Any recommendations would be well received.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: