UNDER THE SKIN
2014, R, 108 mins
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.