Movie Review: Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson mesmerizes and disturbs as an alien visitor.

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For as much as we’re accustomed to admiring and desiring Scarlett Johansson’s beauty, it’s unnerving to behold as seen through Jonathan Glazer’s camera. That’s partly because her character’s body is foreign to itself, and partly because it’s that character’s allure in Under the Skin that leads a number of men, most of whom are portrayed as genuinely benign and kind, to a horrifying doom. These are not insensitive, self-absorbed men clearly deserving of the gruesome fate that awaits them once they make the decision to follow this alien being, in the guise of a gorgeous woman, to her apartment. At first, we may wonder if all this bait and death concerns a reversal of sexual politics. Such is the power of the images before us — female as stalker, man as vulnerable and trusting, followed by a terrifying realization.

Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) seems to have more on his mind, while keeping within his sights sexuality and its function as the flypaper (and expression of tenderness) in relationships. Based on the Michel Faber novel of the same name, Under the Skin has the effectiveness of a haunting short story that stays with you for days after its final page.

Glazer’s film manufactures tension through lingering, carefully composed shots, backed by a buzzing, cacophonous sound design that induces a creeping dread that something awful is about to happen. During one pivotal sequence, we see what Johansson’s alien sees — a variety of people interacting with one another on city streets (the film takes place in Edinburgh). Such scenes are complemented by those in which Johansson’s character stands naked before a mirror, carefully studying her body as if trying to reconcile it with whatever identity she had already formed and understood. Scenes like this compel us to wonder whether the film is a dark meditation on unknowability or perhaps on the illusion of self, the elusive identity we try to locate somewhere under our skin.

With its slow pace and repeated imagery inducing an uneasy, trance-like state, Under the Skin recalls the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick. (Close-up shots of eyes and orbs and red lights are particularly Kubrickian, and bring to mind similar images of HAL in 2001.) Themes aren’t developed to a point where we can bask in complete understanding. This quality, combined with Glazer’s near-hallucinatory style, makes Under the Skin a mesmerizing, uncomfortable experience.

As viewers, we are guided to contemplate life’s fragility, and what it means to be human — being desired, desiring, showing mercy, being cruel. When the film shows us a toddler crying alone on a rocky beach and ignored by Johansson’s alien creature, the anguish we feel is (and should be) unbearable. Johansson’s character is oblivious because she has yet to form the capacity for empathy. Her lack of emotion and inability to connect is powerfully disturbing and frustrating for us because we have no way of reasonably passing judgment on her. With each new hunt, we dread the outcome because we know she can’t relate to the humanity of the men she picks up, and has no emotion on which to draw from to keep her from leading them to their deaths.

Johansson makes the film work with a performance that conveys the requisite matter-of-factness while incorporating elements of curiosity about herself and the humans she observes. In its own way, her acting recalls Daryl Hannah’s combination of seduction and detachment as the replicant Pris in Blade Runner.

I expect that for most viewers, this will be a bewildering, perhaps unpleasant experience. It leaves so much unanswered in terms of motivation, and what it does show is disturbing without being explicit in terms of purpose. In short, it’s a very different kind of film from the ones we’re used to seeing at our megaplexes. But for those up to its challenges, Under the Skin may reward repeated viewings, not simply in a sense of what it means (which is a shortsighted way of judging the value of films, as if each one should neatly resolve into a succinct thesis statement) but as an experience and appreciation of its power. It makes us reflect on our own mortality, our limited time to make human connections, and our own judgments of others based on superficial appearances — and that applies as much to those we find physically attractive as those we don’t. The movie seems designed — much like 2001 — to leave itself open to interpretation. Those open to the unsettling journey it offers may see that as its own reward.

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