Under the Skin

Under the SkinSynopsis: Jonathan Glazer’s third film following Sexy Beast and Birth, Under the Skin is the story of an alien in human form. Part road movie, part science fiction, part real, it’s a film about seeing our world through alien eyes.

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Under the Skin 8.0

eyelights: the disquieting tone. the mysteriousness. the unconventional soundtrack.
eyesores: the encounter in the woods. its limited replay value.

‘Under the Skin’ is a science-fiction drama by Jonathan Glazer (‘Sexy Beast’, ‘Birth’) starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s an unusual one: set in Scotland, it’s about an alien who takes on the form of a human female to lure men to her lair – the purpose of which is unclear (as is the role that her co-conspirator plays).

I went into this film knowing very little and expecting even less: the trailers I had seen many months prior had left me with only a vague impression of what it was, and I hadn’t bothered to read anything more about it since. I went in expecting something out-of-the-ordinary, but had no sense of its plot.

I was pleasantly surprised by it. Very much so.

But ‘Under the Skin’ is a bit abstract, which is something that I relish: it will not appeal to all audiences. And this starts right at the opening credits, which serve up indistinct images that suggest the forming of the alien being’s human identity – backed by an experimental soundtrack. Clearly, this is not going to be ‘E.T.’.

It then proceeds to show us the alien (in the form of a naked Johansson) stealing clothes from a dead young woman in an empty white space, before she begins to stalk the countryside in her small van. The stalking segment of the picture lasts almost a whole hour, meandering from one encounter to the next.

Personally, I found it bold of Glazer to spend the first half dragging us through minutia, through her repetitious exercise of luring men their doom, keeping us reeled in by letting us look into her world in bits – scraps really. There was no exciting action to distract us: he created similar situations but explored just a bit more each time.

Honestly, the more he showed us, the more I wanted to see: I really wanted to complete the mental picture that was forming. It was a lengthy process, but, ultimately, it was a satisfying one: ultimately, we got to understand what was happening – to the extent that outsiders could (since we don’t get insight into the alien’s mind).

Still, it’s not surprising that some people couldn’t bear ‘Under the Skin’s slowness (in fact, I went with a group of people, half of which left midway!). Or the silence, for that matter, since she is by herself: the only dialogues are her limited exchanges with the men she is trying to trick into coming along with her.

The only thing that broke the silence was the film’s dissonant, eerie, minimalistic score. Almost atonal at times, and completely out of synch with the images, the score created a perfect feeling of disquiet: by using this type of backing track, we ourselves are alienated from what we’re experiencing – just like our protagonist.

The second half of the picture picks up speed slightly. Empathizing with a man who is disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the alien allows him to escape. Then she decides to run away, leaving her co-conspirator (a menacing man on a sportbike who always silently pops up at the right time) to clean up her mess – and try to track her down.

‘Under the Skin’ then turns its protagonist into an aimless runaway, unsure where to go and what to do with herself, as she wanders about and encounters various people. There is an evolution of sorts for this character, as she begins to explore humanity. But there’s very little hope of salvation for her, considering her nature and the odds.

The ending is tragic, but contextually unsurprising. Who could expect a Hollywood ending in a situation like this?

Obviously, the picture is tethered to Johansson’s performance. Had she been unable to make this alien feel real, it would have been a total write-off. Thankfully, she takes the  proper emotional distance to make her character appear alien, but it borders on non-acting in that she is totally unemotive and numb.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to think of her, frankly. For instance, the questions she asks of her potential prey are super awkward, feeling improvised – poorly. It’s so bad, in fact, that it’s surprising that none of them ran away. Perhaps their little head spoke louder than the little voice in their head.

What’s interesting is that many of the men being accosted by the alien were non-actors, strangers. Glazer and his crew were in the back of the van filming and would get a release form from them afterwards. So it was premeditated, but I’m not 100% sure how much of the dialogue was Glazer’s or Johansson’s.

Another potentially premeditated scene was a tumble that the alien did on a sidewalk, while wandering about in public. There are mixed account as to whether or not it was planned, but the fact remains that Glazer used the bystanders’ real reactions to help contrast and bridge alien and human emotional responses.

I appreciated Glazer’s choices. The few visuals in the picture were simple, but abstract and effective (case-in-point, the white room). The slickest of the lot was when the victims would walk into the house with the alien and find themselves sinking in a liquid floor while she walked atop. It evoked Jesus Christ, but it also looked cool.

What was great is that Glazer held off from showing us what happens to these men. We just see them sink into the floor, and the alien walk back, crossing the space they used to occupy and starting over. He only slowly allowed us to know what was happening beneath. And even that was slightly cryptic – and equally awesome.

My only problem with ‘Under the Skin’ was that it is set in Scotland and, as such, made many of the dialogues very challenging for me. I already have a difficult time with English accents, but Scottish accents are almost impossible to decipher. I wish there had been subtitles. Mind you, there isn’t enough dialogue that it matters.

I was also left with a few questions (aside from the motive behind luring men): who is this biker character, and how does he know when to show up? Further to that, why are there more than one? Does that mean that there are multiple alien lures in Scotland? And why couldn’t they find the alien given their usual omniscience?

Beyond those unresolved elements, I was quite pleased with ‘Under the Skin’.

It may not be an accessible motion picture, but it’s certainly done with the utmost skill and precision. It’s a film I would definitely recommend to lots of my friends. However, I think that it has limited replay value given that there wouldn’t be much to get out of it once you know what’s under the surface.

Date of viewing: May 23, 2014

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