A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2014 

UNDER THE SKIN jjj
½ 

2014, R, 108 mins

 

Scarlett Johansson as Laura  /  Paul Brannigan as Andrew  /  Robert J. Goodwin as Tea Room  /  Customer  /  Kryštof Hádek as The Swimmer  /  Michael Moreland as The Quiet Man  /  Scott Dymond as The Nervous Man  /  Jeremy McWilliams as The Bad Man

Directed by Jonathan Glazer  /  Written by Walter Campbell and Glazer, based on Michel Faber's novel

Very few sci-fi films – or films, in general – are as cerebrally absorbing, haunting, and immersive as Jonathon Grazer’s UNDER THE SKIN.  

It also belongs on a very short list of esteemed films that capture that ethereally atmospheric Kubrickian quality that so many filmmakers try to achieve, but nonetheless fail at.  UNDER THE SKIN will draw worthwhile comparisons to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for the manner it conjures up strange and visually striking imagery, a chilling sense of mood, and an overall narrative that will baffle even the most patient and literate of filmgoers as to its underlining meaning.  I cannot really adequately describe what the film is about, per se, but I do know what the experience of viewing it was like, and for that UNDER THE SKIN is an alluring and enthralling experience.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. 

Far too many modern science fiction films lay all of their cards out on the table and seem more interested in eye-popping visual effects and spectacle.  Grazer’s film – based on Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name and his first since 2004’s BIRTH – does the exact opposite in allowing his film to methodically unspool and slowly reveal its inherent befuddling mysteries.  From the very opening shots we’re never really sure what is happening, but part of the genius of the UNDER THE SKIN is how Grazer’s keeps the film’s secrets under wraps, pretty much right until the film’s jarring final images.  What we are sure of is that something decidedly otherworldly is transpiring here; as to what it is...we are lead to infer ourselves.   Many filmgoers who admonish such slow-burn antics like this may flee for the cinema exits rather quickly, but as for the rest of us willing to be enraptured in the film’s intoxicating ambiguities, then UNDER THE SKIN will prove to be a most powerful and audacious experience. 

The opening of the film is masterful.  We bare witness to a black screen with a very small white dot in the middle that grows and grows before becoming a strange pattern of rings within rings.  All of this is accompanied by Mica Levi’s indescribably nerve-jangling music score, which punctuates the film’s high WTF factor.  We then are transported to an endless bright white room where we see a naked being (Scarlett Johansson) take the clothes off a presumed dead woman.  This being – which I will refer to from now on as “the alien” – then spends much of the remainder of the film journeying through dark and desolate Scotland to attract and seduce young men.  The alien is mostly mute throughout and hardly ever speaks; when she does it’s to lure in her prey.  Her targets are those that, most likely, will not be missed.  

 

 

When she is able to ensnare her men she takes them to an unspecified location that is essentially one unfathomably large black void.  As she teases her victims with sex, the men slowly sink and become immersed in liquid…but they don’t drown…they just remain there in confinement against their wills.  The cycle then repeats itself several times over, with another apparent alien being (in the form of a motorcycle rider) watching over her every move.  Initially, the female alien seems to lack compassion for her victims entirely – in one unbelievably merciless moment, she abandons a crying infant alone on a cold rocky beach after its parents have died – but the more time she spends in human form the more it seems to take over from her extraterrestrial impulses.  When she decides to let one of her victims go free – a man suffering from a horrible facial disfigurement – this springs her partner into action.  As he hunts her down, she flees into hiding while trying to deal with her own ever-maturing humanity.  

I was a little coy in the opening of my review regarding the identity of the main protagonist here, but even though we don’t really know the motives of her and where she precisely comes from, what seems to be clear is that Johansson’s character is not of this earth.  Even though the film is like a grand and convoluted jigsaw puzzle that may be impossible to solve and piece together after multiple viewings, UNDER THE SKIN manages, I think, to speak towards relatable themes using fantastical elements like great past examples of the sci-fi genre have demonstrated.  Debate, though, as to what Grazer’s film is actually saying will be ongoing.  The film is ostensibly from the alien POV, so is the story a parable about the nature of human loneliness and isolation?  Moreover, is the film a calculated social commentary on the nature of men/women power roles and how men are shallowly driven by lust?  Or, is UNDER THE SKIN about women’s psychological anxieties with their own bodies and their struggles to fit into a society that they feel cruelly judges them?  

UNDER THE SKIN – and its ambitious layers of potential meaning – are all held marvelously together by Johansson’s startling performance.  It would be easy for me to lazily describe her work as “brave” in the essence that she sheds her movie star vanity here (she’s frequently naked during much of the film, which much advance press for the film focused on), but her performance is more than just physically baring herself.  She has to convey her character throughout with almost no dialogue or other actors to work off of (compellingly, her scenes with the men sure lures in were done largely with hidden cameras and real people to give the encounters a stark improvised veracity).  Her work is mostly non-verbal and expressed primarily through body language to suggest the inquisitive and sometimes confused state of the alien.  One noteworthy scene – where the alien stares at its naked body in a mirror, coming to grips with its human form – manages to be more melancholic than erotic.  The manner than Johansson builds a character that’s so achingly non-specific and enigmatic – but somehow makes it work – is kind of astonishing. 

Of course, Grazer’s overall style here further assists UNDER THE SKIN, especially with the manner that he uses lingering visual cues, long takes, bravura sound effects design, and, more importantly, silence to create an unending sensation of audience apprehension.  Yes, the film does contain visual effects, but they’re more muted and unobtrusive to not draw unwarranted attention to themselves.  His sequences with the alien cruising through the Scottish countryside and towns have a gritty, in-the-moment immediacy that miraculously compliments the film’s more hallucinogenic imagery.  The manner than Grazer builds suspense and tension leading up to the film’s shocking revelations and climax is handled with utmost control and confidence.  

Still, I can definitely see how many lay filmgoers will find UNDER THE SKIN to be an exasperating endurance test.  The film requires great patience in viewers, perhaps more so than any recent film that I can recall.  It could be said that UNDER THE SKIN does not work as a conventional alien invasion film…but it’s not really trying to be one; it’s more about how the overall active experience of seeing it and how it works on you as opposed to what it’s passively trying to tell you.  Even though future viewings will probably stymie my efforts to crack its narrative and thematic code, I do know now that UNDER THE SKIN contains unforgettable images and sequences that will indefinitely stay with me.  This is a sci-fi flick that’s equal parts gloriously trippy and freakishly disturbing as hell that, in turn, works more as a meditative tone poem than a traditional story-driven affair.  I’ll certainly never forget it.

  H O M E