Upcoming Silver Reel TV series based on Under The Skin inspires PTN’s Scifi Hidden Gems to revisit the Michael Faber book and the Jonathan Glazer film starring Scarlett Johansen, an eerie masterpiece that dares to love the alien

Written by: Jason M. Lucia – May 18th, 2020 8:43pm pst

PTN Scifi Hidden Gems:  Under The Skin

Credit:  A24

After an allegedly brutal bidding war with A24, Silver Reel Pictures has acquired the TV rights to Michael Faber’s eerie and weirdly elegant science fiction novel Under The Skin (2000), which was adapted as a feature film to great critical acclaim by Jonathan Glazer and A24 in 2017, with Scarlett Johansen in the lead role.  

The book is fantastically eerie, narrated by Isserley, an extraterrestrial sent to earth by an alien corporation to assume an approximation of a comely female shape and drive a van all over the UK, luring hitchhikers who are then drugged and mutilated and processed to serve as designer meat for the lifeforms on her homeworld.  Through Isserley’s gradual identification with her victims and estrangement from the agendas of the civilization that mothered her, we receive a scifi critique of human loneliness, the perils of living as a female under patriarchy, and the inherent barbarism of the meat packing industry.  It’s a great book.  Powerful stuff.

When Jonathan Glazer and his co-screenwriter Walter Campbell began the ten year process of developing a film based on Under The Skin, their intention was to stay faithful to the book, extrapolating the technologies and backstory of a malevolent alien civilization, exploring Isserley’s psychology and her strangely relatable problems and epiphanies.  Brad Pitt was briefly attached as an alien farmer.  At some point in the evolution of the project, perhaps due to expected budget problems (“realistic” special effects, menacing spaceship interiors, Brad Pitt, etc.), Glazer and Campbell decided to approach the science fiction horror story differently.  They decided to submerge it almost completely.  They decided to tell the story from the alien point of view.  Not through the voice of a Dutch writer describing an alien stream of consciousness in English.  But through the eye of something that sees time and space very differently.

Credit:  A24

Moreso than any other film I’ve experienced that deals with extraterrestrial themes, the Under The Skin they ended up making in 2013 (with Scarlet Johannsen as the predator) communicates the emotional experience of an organism that has very little in common with us, despite the simulated skin she’s in, sharing the procedure of her predation with lavish (but inexpensive) surrealistic visuals and NO exposition.  We’re seeing earth people (men,in particular) through the lens of her insatiable but inscrutable agenda.  The film ambiguates the book’s mythology so completely that when all is unsaid and undone, meat doesn’t seem to be what her imponderably exotic homeworld wants from us.  And “outer space” doesn’t seem to be a sufficient descriptor for wherever she came from.

Credit:  A24

There’s a real transdimensional weirdness to the film.  Johansson is chilling and heartbreaking at the same time in those moments when you realize the friendly, generic things she says are just noises she bleats to attract the animal…when she watches a potential victim and his wife pulled out too far by the tide, drowning while our heroine clubs a beach bum and drags him to her van as the infant left behind by the drowned couple screams into the darkening night, just a noisy soft thing on the beach she has no use for.  When she applies her disabling flirtations to a severely deformed man she picks up, and he thinks that it’s cruelty, that she’s sarcastically playing with him, but his deformity doesn’t register until she gives it a think.  We all look alike to her.  

Credit:  A24

When she strays from her ordained function and wanders almost mutely into actual connection with a young man who takes her in, and the film almost threatens to take a turn for the rom-common until they get physical and they are both shocked by the realization that our heroine has no genitals.  It’s a story told with images and soundscapes and mood and style, and by losing extraneous human dialogue all exposition, the anti-meat satire and the corporate colonialism and the feminism gets blurred a bit, but they blur in the process of becoming more universal.  More fundamental.  Under The Skin asks questions about identity and the aching gulf between every Self and every Other. It’s so hermetically sealed in its own alien language that speculation on the finer points of its “meaning” seem vulgar.  It’s the kind of film that shuts you up and you sit with it and learn to live with its mysteries.

Credit:  A24

The Silver Reel Productions TV series will allegedly be “very respectful” of the film, but it will make the book’s mythology and technology more explicit, with other aliens and criss-crossing soap opera subplots, no doubt, and a story engine that can drive 100 episodes, at least.  They have even spoken of a desire to do spin-offs.   That might not bode well for fans of the film.  Films or episodes in a healthy, lucrative science fiction franchise (with a hoped-for nerd culture following and potential product on many platforms) tend to explain themselves and their own continuities constantly for the viewer, for fear of losing a single fan, for fear of confusing the viewer for even a moment, despite the fact that encyclopedias of every fictional world in captivity sprawl all over the internet for those who go might astray amidst the mixed signals of a convoluted TV wonderland.  

Credit:  A24

Some science fiction TV series (despite great artistic virtues of a different sort) don’t have the courage or faith in our intelligence to leave it all unsaid, to connect us with someone who is utterly Other and who commands our attention because she knows what we don’t, Isserley (or “Laura” ) knows what she is doing amongst these lonely creatures and their skin.  She knows what she’s about, even if we don’t.  We can feel all the answers slithering under the film’s surface, but we don’t dare break that surface and go under with her to catch one.  I think we’re enriched on a dangerously neglected level of being when a story convinces us to be at ease in mystery and identify with impossible people.  Our inner worlds get bigger to make room for films like Under The Skin. And it isn’t THAT scary, if you have already grasped its truth.  “Laura” thinks she’s a honeytrap.  But planet Earth is the real honeytrap for insects like our heroine.  Blind human cruelty eats UFOs for breakfast.

Credit:  A24

A24 is famous for its uncompromising commitment to sophisticated filmmaking and intense stylistic excellence in science fiction.  It’s a shame the rights didn’t stay with them.  I may very well be ashamed for saying so if they roll out the series and it blows my mind in a way that’s evocative or even antithetical to the Glazer take.  But in general, I think production companies in general would rather that their franchises went the way of Star Trek than Twin Peaks: The Return.  

Maintaining that inky ocean of mystery under the fur coat and the skin of her for hours and hours of increasingly ambiguous television is probably a project that would only appeal to a very limited and profoundly un-lucrative niche: lovers of philosophical and aesthetically upsetting sci-fi gems that feel hidden,  even when we know about them.  The A24 Under The Skin TV series (now not to be, alas)  would be made for the kind of people who cry when a lifeform composed of coagulated shadowplasm sees its peeled-off movie star face for the first time and is unmade in pain by a storm of  fire, like just another sunstroked monster lost on safari.

Credit: A24

Let’s just hope for the best, steer clear of inky puddles, and don’t get in cars with strangers.  This is Jason M Lucia, excavating scifi hidden gems for the discerning superfan on the Popcorn Talk Network.

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About The Author:

Jason M. Lucia is a media critic, columnist, and professional ghostwriter whose work has been published under several pseudonyms.  He was raised in Medford, MA.  He went to school in NY.  He lives to rhapsodize the stories he loves on the page and in the flesh.

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