The Oscars are notorious for neglecting genre films in their Best Picture category, let alone in the major non-technical categories: Acting, Directing, Writing, etc. In 1969, 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t even nominated for the top honor, and Kubrick lost Best Director to Carol Reed for Oliver!. Yes, Oliver!, exclamation point included. That’s just one example, but it’s generally accepted this is the case: there are good movies, there are Oscar-bait movies, and then there are the genre movies that don’t pander to the accepted benchmarks of culture and taste in order to ingratiate Academy applause, the kinds of movies that make steam blow out of the Weinsteins’ ears, genuinely great achievements in cinema that are rarely recognized properly by the only awards show that the public even half-recognizes.
2014 has two such movies to boast. One is a hammy, big-budget Spielberg-ish epic, the other an edgy art house piece whose synopsis could read as a reboot of Species (1995): Exactly the kinds of movies that can make an Academy member’s blood run cold-to-tepid. To be fair, on the surface those aren’t the most flattering descriptions. But both Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin are worthy of what should be a term of particularly lofty praise in certain circles, not a stigma—and that term is “real science fiction.”
As in, not an action-adventure movie with outlandish costumes or an excuse for a vast and over-stimulated art team to design some ridiculous CGI horror, no, not that sci-fi (and not that Syfy). This is fiction where speculation is made about the very fabric of our world and our existence, as a way to dive deep into those murky unknowns of what and whom we are, what defines us, where we’re going. These are fierce frontiers to be explored, and they are not for the dull, the uninspired, the gladhanding, the moribund, the biopic. This is where “based on a true story” means “based on a story that could one day be true,” talking about truths far deeper than facts but inspired by facts that dazzle by being stranger than fiction (Hey, relativity’s kinda real, critics who panned it as implausible in Interstellar.) It’s about reaching, stretching for truths not yet grasped. And sometimes there are aliens and robots, too, and that’s cool.
While both can claim Kubrick as a point of reference and inspiration, Interstellar and Under the Skin couldn’t be much more different, aside from their genre and their ambition and, well, the small matter of actually sharing some like themes. For Nolan, the shadow of Kubrick is more about production value, attempting to bring a sweeping sense of realism to his own grand space odyssey, and it’s also very much about repeating soundless shots of machines doing space ballet while Hans Zimmer’s insanely loud and unbearably awesome score compels full submission to the formal viscera. Nolan’s got the scope, Glazer brings the stylistic rigor and the clinical, almost inhuman dissection of concept.
Under the Skin is more heartily embraced by the critical community because it is so unified in purpose and drive. It is a biting examination of sexual politics and a dissertation on the bodies we inhabit and how those bodies create a paradigm of ownership. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien avatar, the predator, the cipher whose weakness is her awakening humanity. When she looks in a mirror, lost in a gaze at her own body, it’s a reminder to us to find some remove from our weary familiarity with our selves and to think, “Golly, what strange things we are.” The film’s tragic conclusion is an assertion that we achieve some positive ideal of what it is to be human when we accept a state of vulnerability, when we forsake the power position in our sexual communication. When we allow for the reality of our frailty, we can care for the frailty in all around us—and this is a very dangerous thing to do. Especially in a world riddled with corruption and malice that seeks to press its advantage.
Under the Skin shows us these truths with images that are impossibly beautiful, terrifying and ultimately haunting. There is no exposition, only voids which suspended shells of victims float in, laser sharp lights piercing darkness, menacingly stoic bikers, snowflakes falling into lenses. There is a scene on a beach that plays out like a Bergman or Haneke set-piece and is just as heartbreaking as that would entail. Under the Skin is a soul-crushing work and yet, somehow, the film reiterates that we must continue working towards finding our souls. An artful cascade of multiple exposures of random people, about midway through the film, would seem to symbolize the birth of empathy in Johansson’s femme fatale, and while this is the beginning of the end for her, it can’t help but resonate in Under the Skin with all the radiance of beatitude. These are scenes, statements, questions that are only possible within the framework that the film’s science fiction aspect provides, for these are not the thought processes bound by what is real, but what could be.
Similarly (but utterly differently), Interstellar uses the sci-fi paradigm to create scenes of drama that are mere exaggerations of what we endure in our lives. Parenthood is its own kind of time slippage, our relative experience of time accelerated in sensation if not reality by watching our children grow quickly into the age at which we had them. Spectating in this sense is like dreaming of a life that isn’t yours, or—to be more meta—to watch a film. In Interstellar, the lead character, played by Matthew McConaughey, has to experience a unique extrapolation of this when he watches video messages from his children that show them, in choppy spurts, becoming the same age that he is, countless years of their lives gone to him because of a mission gone awry. Nolan’s been accused of coldness in his films but it’s almost sick the way he revels in the pain that McConaughey summons from whatever pit’s adjacent to his True Detective performance. And this is really the driving force behind Interstellar: the agonizing, ecstatic, “necessary” costs of love. The film’s not as critically embraced as Under the Skin because there’s all the big-budgetisms, the melodrama, the exposition for days and light years, the Topher Grace. Thematically, too, critics find it a mess. But it’s a glorious mess, as life or at least as our experience of life often is.
The working title of Interstellar was “Flora’s Letter,” Flora being the name of Nolan’s daughter. Nolan is a rationalist, a materialist, but Interstellar, for all its old Hollywood scale and lustrous IMAX glow, is about what happens when materialist Nolan looks at his daughter and tries to figure out what it means for him to tell her that he loves her. For a dude like Christopher Nolan, that ends up as a three-hour movie about the world dying and gravity manipulating matter across dimensions and holes of both the black- and worm- variety and Matt Damon as a sort-of-evil pragmatist mouthpiece (and also a long-lost character from Tarkovsky’s Solyaris) and the evolution of humanity into its own God—or something. And it’s a gripping, gorgeous, rapturous thing to behold.
There comes a point in Interstellar when a desperate McConaughey is pushing books off a book case from within some sort of cross-dimensional kaleidoscope; into the next dimension up, of the film as a film, you can almost see Nolan, making art, pushing this art at his daughter, trying to find a way to communicate something as simple as “I love you”—but, blessedly, a simplicity that Nolan does not take for granted. It is a small thing to say, but too important and ineffable for it to be said on such a small scale as it almost always is. Interstellar says, “I love you” with big, bold, and yet intensely thoughtful strokes. It is a film that goes to great lengths to reconcile the realities of love—beyond social utility—with the realities of science, merging Nietzschean knowledge with transcendentalist hope. Even as its endless exposition eurekas about how love actually is quantifiable—just in a way that’s beyond our currently finite, four-dimensional understanding—it ends with a shot that wordlessly validates the mysterious power of love. Plus: the American flag. This is Hollywood we’re talking about.
But not Hollywood enough, apparently. Interstellar garnered those aforementioned technical category Academy Award nominations, of course, but not much else besides the very earned nod to Zimmer for his heat-rock celestial organ fugues. And Under the Skin might as well not exist, as far as the industry’s hype and recognition machine is concerned. They are films that belong to a different sort of artistic landscape. The chances they take are risky ones. They’re unabashed in their theorizing and philosophizing and in their robots and aliens and Topher Grace. Maybe one day, though, they will be looked at as examples of that real science fiction, like 2001, that wasn’t as silly or nerdy as it’s made out to be, that uses that point of speculative fiction as a fulcrum to swing for the stars in what it had to say, and through these films’ execution often said those things quite poignantly. Along with Spike Jonze’s incredible relational diorama Her from 2013, it is a potent trifecta of films that science fiction has given us over the past couple years. Here’s to the pioneers.
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Chet Betz moonlights as an editor for Cokemachineglow.com and has written for Kill Screen Magazine. He has young twins and he makes them listen to Coltrane. You can follow him on Twitter.