Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jeremy McWilliams
Genre: Drama/ Thriller/ Horror/ Sci–Fi
In Scotland, an alien taking human form (Johansson) kills an attractive young woman with no remorse, and takes this woman’s clothes for herself. Driving around the streets of Glasgow and elsewhere she stops and chats to random men, picking them up giving them the impression that she is willing to have sex with them. She takes these men to an abandoned house in which these men meet their demise in a very unique way. Her every move and action is watched by another alien who has the form of a male motorcyclist (McWilliams). As she continues to pick up these men and converse with them she begins to learn about the human race and begins to doubt her mission and truly finds out what is under the skin.
Though there are similarities to Species, there are thankfully very few. Jonathan Glazer’s film deserves applause for its originality; it is a film with some striking and unforgettable imagery, but also one that has plenty of flaws and is at times a real effort to watch. From the lack of dialogue, exposition and painfully slow shots there is a feeling that this is a film that poses more questions than answers. Despite this the film’s central theme is glaringly obvious and so makes the slow pace in the final third at times a tad irritating and threatens to detract from the great work that Glazer does by creating some truly memorable imagery.
The scenes in which these men meet their demise are eerie and very stylish, complimented by an incredibly disconcerting score from Mica Levi. I noticed when seeing this at the cinema the sound was turned up, and I would definitely recommend seeing Under the Skin at the cinema as the film is partly about the experience with its superb sound design. It is never explained why she is doing this (though apparently it is in the book), but Glazer’s decision not to focus on that was the right one in my opinion, allowing him to focus on the main themes and meanings within the narrative. I of course do not want to say too much, but as I said, though they do have poignancy and substance these are all quite obvious themes and ideas, making the film verge perilously into style over substance territory at times. At times it does feel Glazer thinks his film is more intelligent than it actually is, making some of his slow shots irritating and meaningless. Though after the film has finished some of the imagery I would certainly say will stay with you for a short while, it contains no life changing philosophies that will make anyone change how they see the world or fellow human beings.
In what seems to be a bit of a purple patch for her at the moment Scarlett Johansson gives an excellent performance, which of course was always vital for Under the Skin to work. Her facial expressions capture perfectly the character arc she is experiencing; her initial cold emotionless stare emerges into intrigue and eventually compassion as she speaks to a variety of human beings. She asks men the simple questions a child would ask as she begins to understand the complexity and variations that exist within the human population; this naturalistic dialogue is helped by many scenes being through hidden cameras with non actors. Once again though, once her arc has developed in the film’s final third we are never told anything we do not already know and so are not given anything to think about. Many scenes (though beautifully shot) are tedious and infuriating, and I think that is partly Glazer’s intention. Under the Skin is at times an effort to watch, with this effort not getting the reward it deserves, do not watch this film if you are tired as you will probably nod off.
Under the Skin is undoubtedly a film of admirable originality with some striking visuals and boasts a note perfect central performance from Johansson. However it is also flawed, tedious and at times a laborious film that sign posts its ideas and themes way too much to provide an often unsatisfying and sometimes infuriating film experience.