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.
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 Life, Under 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.