Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Written By: Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell (based on the novel by Michael Faber)
Directed By: Jonathan Glazer
It’s quite an odd thing for a movie to be unique and familiar at the same time. Under the Skin isn’t like anything else playing at the multiplex at the moment – but it’s also not altogether new. The film echoes the work of such filmmakers as David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick – as well as little known indies such as Primer and Upstream Color. Using a sci-fi trope to make a broader social statement, while stressing style over substance and minimalist storytelling – Under the Skin is intermittently intriguing, yet mostly tedious.
In the thinnest of plots, Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien seductress who preys on hitchhikers in Scotland. Johansson is one of the only actors in the film – with most of the hitchhikers having been filmed cinema verite style with hidden cameras – and only told after the fact that they are part of a movie.
Johansson’s character (never named) then lures these men (presumably the ones who are paid actors) to a nest which consists of a black void of nothingness. They then follow her as she disrobes, but they end up sinking into some sort of black goo that appears to steal their life’s essence – diminishing them to nothing but skin and hair. Why does she do this? What exactly is happening to them? Got me. Perhaps she needs to take human life in order to survive or perhaps this is allegory for something else altogether.
The first half of the film is quite repetitive as what was described above happens again and again – Johansson drives a van around Scotland, picks up men enticed by her beauty and then disposes of them. It gets quite tiresome after a while as there’s barely any dialogue and Johansson displays very little emotion. She appears to be an emotionless being, but this alien is also a good little “actress”, able to ape the behavior of a seductress until losing all expression after the deed is done. Johansson’s performance is actually surprisingly effective seeing that she’s given very little to do and rarely speaks.
There’s also a mysterious man on a motorcycle who is presumably another alien, following Johansson around, cleaning up her victim’s bodies and any evidence of their whereabouts. Again, who he is and why he exists is never made clear. Does he represent a pimp? Is Johansson the alien version of a prostitute? You can perceive that some of this is about the objectification of women and the female body and yes, this is Johansson’s onscreen nudity debut – but if that’s the reason you go to see this movie – you probably shouldn’t bother. The baring of flesh is in no way gratuitous and serves for the alien to discover and study “its” female form. The sex of the alien is up for discussion as being “under her skin”, it’s reasonable to believe that it could use the skin suit of a man as well.
There’s a devastating scene on a beach featuring the demise of a family – including a dog and baby – and it’s as harrowing as anything in years. The problem with this scene, as with the rest of the film, is that it’s purpose for existing is unclear – even particularly more so than other perplexing moments throughout. It’s not that I can’t handle such a thing – after all life can be tragic and cinema has the right to exhibit that fact – but if you’re going to upset me like that, I’d like to know it’s for a good reason…
Wait a minute, I get it. Johansson’s character witnesses all of this, a husband and wife drowning attempting to save their drowning dog, a surfer trying to rescue them while their baby is wailing on the shore – and she feels nothing. The alien cannot process empathy, fear or human compassion. But we already know this thing is inhumane – to drive that point home like this feels unnecessarily extreme.
Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) is more interested with taking the viewer on a visual journey than he is in telling a story. This is an art film in every sense of the word and some of the visual aspects are quite stunning and hypnotic. Credit must also go to composer Mica Levi who incorporates an eerie musical score that’s fittingly experimental and weird.
Under the Skin is dark, disturbing and even a somewhat unpleasant viewing experience. To say it’s not for everybody is an understatement, it’s probably not for most. I often enjoy strange, slow and inscrutable filmmaking but this one just didn’t work for me. Monotonous to the point of being unengaging, Under the Skin is an overwhelmingly bleak film which insists on keeping the viewer at an arms length. To discuss and decipher the meaning of a film can be one of the joys of moviegoing, but with this one, I kind of don’t care.