Under the Skin Review

Posted: December 4, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

UNDER-THE-SKIN-poster-610x903Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Given her frequent appearances in the Marvel films, as well as blockbusters like Lucy, it can be easy to forget just how serious an actress Scarlett Johansson really is. Throughout her career, she’s not only taken roles in big-budget Hollywood productions, she’s also worked with some of the best directors working, such as Christopher Nolan, The Coen Brothers, Woody Allen, and Spike Jonze. Additionally, Johansson has always been drawn to smaller independent films, with two of her breakthrough performances being Ghost World and Lost in Translation. Despite her recent career success, Johansson still joins smaller, more interesting productions. This summer’s Chef is an example of this, but an even more interesting independent film starring Johansson is Under the Skin, a strange little science-fiction film which has divided audiences. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Under the Skin, but I was very curious to find out.

Scarlett Johansson plays a strange extra-terrestrial creature who has taken the appearance of a beautiful woman. She situates herself in Scotland and spends her days driving a van around and asking young men for directions. Her goal is to lure these men into the van so that she may take them to her lair and prey open them. To what end her deception serves is never revealed, and the film itself is not very limited in the literal “why”s of the story.

From the start, Under the Skin is defined by a very abstract and surreal tone. The film’s score comes off more as heavy ambient music and the sci-fi aspects of the story are rendered minimally. There also isn’t much in the way of dialogue, with most of the conversations being rendered to inconsequential small talk. It is never actually stated that Johansson’s character is an alien and it is presented in such a surreal way that I could see some viewers not even understanding that she is in alien. The surreal style is interesting and can be very effective. The ambient score can be very powerful in certain moments, and there is also some very nice cinematography. Additionally, many of the scenes where Johansson’s character brings men into her van were initially filmed with non-actors who didn’t even know they were on camera. There are also scenes of real crowds being filmed with Johansson’s character walking among them. This may seem gimmicky, but it does provide a sense of some strange being attempting to infiltrate everyday society. Unfortunately, the trade off to these more realistic scenes is there is a clear shift from the more stylish cinematography seen elsewhere in the film.

Scarlett Johansson does a good job making her strange character come to life. She captures the sense of an aloof being trying to blend in very well, and in the latter half of the movie, she goes through a small arc of self-discover which Johansson sells very well. The actual plot details of the scene are minimal, but Johansson’s performance is extremely interesting. However it is important to stress that Under the Skin is less about the story and more about the experience of watching it. Many critics have tried to decipher the meaning of the film and there is some interesting food for thought. There is a recurring theme of body image throughout the film both in how Johansson uses her beauty to capture her victims, as well as later scenes where bodies are presented entirely bare. I have no doubt that Glazer is trying to make some sort of statement regarding body image, as well as gender, though I can’t say I know what that statement is.

Though the film is very interesting at certain points, Under the Skin’s Achilles heel is it can’t really maintain that interest throughout the entire runtime. There are some strong moments, but also quite a few dull stretches where one is waiting for something weird and interesting to happen again. In that sense, the film can be a frustrating viewing experience. However it should be noted that when the film does hit with a strong scene, it’s extremely memorable. There are three scenes where Glazer depicts what Johansson does to the men in her lair which are mesmerizing, surreal, and haunting. Each scene bears some similarities to the others, but all three are unique as well. Even better is the film’s ending, which I dare not spoil, but I will say contains some of the most interesting imagery of the year.

Many people had very extreme, very polarized reactions to Under the Skin. My reaction is a lot more mixed. I think the film has some very inspired and unforgettable moments, a mostly effective style, and a great performance from Scarlett Johansson. On the downside, I think there are some boring stretches and I’m not entirely convinced of its thematic greatness. Really, I’m reminded of last year’s film Upstream Color, which was another highly surreal and low-budget science-fiction film which had an interesting style and a great female performance brought down by moments of boredom. I was mixed on that film, but it has stick with me since seeing it, and I imagine Under the Skin will as well.


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