Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, most of all, a study in imagery. Its science-fiction status is hinted at by visual design, as in the film’s opening moments, when concentric circles appear out of the darkness on screen, then are seen to separate, inhabiting three-dimensional space, from left to right, with a bright light blazing on one side. The figure suggests a diagram of a solar system, all its planets in perfect alignment, or (more on point) the glass elements of a lens.
Out of the previous silence, we start to hear fragments of a woman’s voice on the soundtrack, and the elements on screen, clean and fresh as something out of the Apple factory, are resolved as the workings of an eye, iris and pupil appearing on screen in startling close-up. The film then cuts to images of nature, water rushing by, and a jagged road slicing across the screen like Dali’s razor blade slashing an eyeball.
It’s been eight years since the release of Zach Snyder’s beefcake epic 300 put movie buffs on notice that the future of action cinematography was endless slow-motion, excruciating speed ramping, and ever more phony-baloney green-screen tableaux. That might not seem like a long time, but in Hollywood terms it’s a freaking eon. It only took two more years than that before Sony kicked Sam Raimi to the curb and rebooted the Spider-Man series entirely with a younger, cuter director. So maybe Zack Snyder is lucky Warner Bros. greenlighted a straightforward sequel to 300 rather than handing a remake to Fede Alvarez or somebody.
I am not entirely sure why many critics seem to be writing about this as if Robot Chicken wasn’t earlier, funnier, and conjured in a more perfect spirit of the kind of exuberant creative anarchy that the carefully licensed Lego Movie pretends to endorse. I guess they’re swept along in the movie’s silly enthusiasm and spirit of borderline-surreal invention, which do keep it aloft for nearly 80 percent of its running time.
I was swept along until the film took a sudden, final-reel swandive into a transparently preachy live-action ode to Lego-enabled childhood imagination — a borderline-smarmy attempt to sneak some heavy branding for the world’s most highly capitalized toy company into a kid pic. (It wouldn’t be out of place if it were part of an industrial film made to seduce the masses at a Toy Fair, or rev up the salarymen at a Lego sales meeting.) The film sets up this weird dichotomy between vision-starved adults, who have apparently forsaken the innocent pleasures of youthful experimentation, and fabulously inventive children, who continually bust the mold by linking up Lego blocks in admirably unforeseen combinations. The notion that an adult could take real joy in assembling bricks according to someone else’s blueprint — in appreciating the prodigiousness of someone else’s creative mind — seems to be beyond the film’s own imagining. But what rankles is the literal-minded way the film intrudes on and deconstructs its own fanciful universe — the way it short-circuits the response of anyone who was enjoying the picture as an actual flight of fantasy, rather than a direct endorsement of the way Big Toy thinks we all should play with our dolls.
Also disappointing are the film’s gender politics, which start with the character of WyldStyle, the film’s sole major female role (who functions primarily as one vertex of a love triangle), and end with a nearly preverbal preschool girl who’s into Duplo and destruction. In fact, the film’s idea of playtime is so sexist in its conception that it reaches a kind of apotheosis when Mom, no shit, calls down from the kitchen to her big man and her little man, sequestered in the romanticized cloudcuckooland of their prodigious imaginations, to let them know that she has finished preparing their meals.
Oh, sure, there are some good laughs to be had — but a bad taste lingers. Remember the good old days, when directors were lauded for smuggling subversive content into films that looked at first glance like commercial product? This one is a flattering commercial message disguised as subversion.