Film Review: Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson is a dead, reanimated, alien soul — in an intellectual way.

Apr 14, 2014 at 1:30 pm
"How the hell did I end up in Scotland?" - Courtesy photo.
Courtesy photo.
"How the hell did I end up in Scotland?"

Under the Skin | A-

If critics could assign their readers homework, I would have you watch Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin — not because it’s a flawless film but because it’s the kind of movie that will challenge your expectations of what cinema can offer while sparking meaningful conversations about objectification and dehumanization. Heavy topics, I know, but in a season that’s heating up with extravagantly made but intellectually simplistic blockbusters and superhero bombast, some arty experimentation can serve as a reminder that warm weather trips to the cineplex need not be limited to the fetishes of hormonal teenage boys.

Gorgeously hypnotic and methodically paced, Glazer’s moody science fiction has no recognizable plot, no dramatically rendered conflicts or well-articulated character arcs. It explains nothing and asks only that you observe. But if you need a hook to grab on to: imagine a feminist Nicolas Roeg or Stanley Kubrick directing the 1995 sci-fi horror Species. It might look vaguely like Under the Skin.

Opening with a pulse of light and then an extreme close-up of an eye, Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) offers only the vaguest suggestion that something extraterrestrial is in action. The body, skin and clothing of a dead woman are transformed into, well, Scarlett Johansson (who is billed in the credits as “Laura”) and soon after she is taking the wheel of a featureless white van. Blank-faced and watchful, Laura stalks the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, in search of single men. With casual banter and subtle hints of sex (“Do you have a girlfriend?” and “Do you think I’m pretty?”), she lures them back to her place. Shedding her clothes, she leads the men into a creepy, darkened room with an inky black pool. Laura walks across the surface of the mysterious liquid as the men sink beneath, immobilized, then — I won’t ruin the shock. But even as what happens is revealed, no explanation for why is given. 

Nothing about Laura’s assignment is particularly complicated, but the way she studies and interacts with potential victims evolves. At first she is curious about — but immune to — their humanity. An encounter with a young man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, however, changes things. While his deformity is meaningless to her alien sensibilities, his shy loneliness seems to have an impact. It’s here that Laura walks away from her objective and struggles to identify with humanity, experiencing both its best and worst traits. Unfortunately, her disappearance ignites a search by the mysterious men on motorcycles who assist her.

Glazer’s menacing tone, long takes and striking trance-like visuals are complemented by Mica Levi’s buzzing, atonal score, creating 100 minutes of unnerving confusion and dread. I can’t say you will necessarily enjoy the film (in fact, I’m willing to bet many won’t) but it will, as the title implies, get under your skin. Glazer encourages you to immerse yourself in his claustrophobic, often silent world, forcing you to draw your own conclusions about what it all means.

Nevertheless, at its heart, Under the Skin chronicles the evolution of an “it” into a “she.” It’s a transformation that results in heartbreaking tragedy, as Laura discovers that while man’s objectification of women gave her power to pursue her alien agenda, once she takes agency and embraces her feminine identity, it leaves her vulnerable to the worst kind of male violence. This revelation leads to a haunting conclusion that suggests that once a woman’s beauty is stripped away, men will brutally reject what is revealed beneath.

Which is why Johansson is such a perfect choice for the role. Well accustomed to being watched, considered an object of Hollywood glamor, she is literally laid bare before our eyes. There is copious nudity in Under the Skin, but never for the sake of prurience. Instead, we’re forced to regard Johansson’s physical nature, the things that make her human … or not. 

Cool and Argus-eyed, the actress bares the full weight of Glazer’s film on her slender shoulders, mostly sharing scenes with non-actors who, at first, aren’t aware they’re being captured by hidden cameras. This added layer of neo-realism makes Johansson’s performance all the more impressive for its fearlessness. Not only must she improvise her interactions with the men she stalks and seduces, maintain her alien detachment, and layer in a convincing British accent, but she also has to hope that her unsuspecting co-stars don’t recognize the celebrity beneath the jet black hair and acid-wash jeans. 

Love it or hate it, Under the Skin is a mesmerizing puzzle box of contemplation, where audience, alien, starlet and real-world men dehumanize each other even as they are, in turn, dehumanized. It’s a film that forces us to consider what the complicated surfaces of humanity really cover up. The answer is both beautiful and awful to behold. 

Under the Skin opens Friday, April 18, at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. It is rated R and has a running time of 108 minutes.