Review: Glazer's 'Under the Skin' Undoubtedly Gets Under Our Skin
by Jeremy Kirk
April 18, 2014
Visually haunting and lyrical in style, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of the novel Under the Skin is the kind of profound sci-fi brain-stopper that will be sure to draw comparisons to some of the greats. We’re talking Kubrick and Roeg comparisons. History will tell if Under the Skin attains any part of that level of legacy, but it’s undeniable the film achieves success in the images it displays before our eyes and the emotions they beckon from the audience’s soul. Always at an arm’s length of understanding its grand design, the film relies on aesthetic and a gripping performance from Scarlett Johansson to hold the viewer’s attention. All things considered, that's not a bad combination of benefits to choose from. Read on!
Johansson plays, we are to assume, a member of a strange, alien race who travels to our planet to pick up hitchhikers. That would be a noble cause for any race, not just one whose DNA is wholly different from ours. But this alien visitor scours the city streets and country roads of Scotland in search of prey, victims who fall for her immaculate beauty and quickly become trapped in the otherworldly prison she has in store for them.
That’s such a basic premise and one from which Under the Skin slowly works itself away. A good bulk of the film is episodic, hitting the same seduce/trap/repeat structure with each passing hitchhiker Johansson’s alien hunts. Each one adds a new layer to more nefarious schemes at work, Glazer periodically checking in with the alien officer who appears to patrol Johansson's work from the back of his motorcycle. Most of Under the Skin, though, is the ScarJo Show. When she’s not letting the trap do her dirty work, she’s driving those streets and roads searching for the perfect victim.
This is where Glazer’s film, and I am assuming Michel Faber’s original novel, finds its sense of purpose. As this alien goes about her task of weeding out humans, she begins to understand the range of human emotion and feeling. Much of her prey is made up of sex-driven men who would gladly go into a darkened house with a mysterious woman, especially one who looks like Johansson. But the aliens’ understanding of the human race grows to a point of empathy. The questioning she places on what she’s doing when she does come across a human with moralistic integrity, a young man who suffers from neurofibromatosis, will put her at odds with her own kind.
The idea of an alien coming to emotional and connective terms with the human race is not new, it’s just never been told quite like this. Glazer packs his film with mood, sometimes the creepy and the grotesque playing around one another. Under the Skin isn’t interested in heavy explosions or thick, expository dialogue. On the contrary, Glazer seems to enjoy keeping information from his audience, forcing us to piece together details based on image alone. There’s a frustration that stems from making heads or tails from Glazer’s minimalist and sometimes abstract screenplay, the dialogue almost as sparse as the action.
Of course, that’s a challenge for the film’s lead. Johansson says very little in the film. More often than not, she’s required to use looks and expressions to get her message across, the former of those not at all a problem for the stunning actress. Okay, enough about her looks. Scarlett Johansson is feeding us a diet of shrewd intensity in this film. Her alien character is uncomfortable in this skin, and the internal conflict between seeing humans as friend or food appears sunk into the actress’ dark eyes. It makes the story all the more emotional and the end results all the more tragic.
It’s no wonder Glazer seems fascinated by the manner in which his lead character traps her quarry, something we see more of in the film than we probably should. The peculiar imagery and brusque narrative - never to discount the piercing and uncomfortable music from Mica Levi - in Under the Skin quietly traps its audience, as if we’re sinking into a vat of black goo that slowly tightens around us. It’s a difficult pun to get around, but the film really does get under your skin and challenges your senses for some time after seeing it. Perhaps that’s why Glazer cast Johansson in the lead role to begin with. She’s our one constant that assures us it’s all just a movie and not some strange documentation of a horrifying alien invasion
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10
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