Under the Skin (United Kingdom/United States, 2013)

April 07, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Under the Skin Poster

Let me begin by stating that I cannot recommend Under the Skin to audiences in search of a mainstream movie experience. This film, a cryptic adaptation of Michel Faber's novel, is all about mood and setting. It's as existential as a sci-fi/horror film can possibly be. It requires that the viewer slip into a meditative mood and remain there for more than 90 minutes. The film has the capacity to hypnotize but only for those willing to go where director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) wants to take them. It's slow moving and contemplative. The horror elements are slight. There are no "boo!" moments. The special effects are limited and rather primitive. Those who fall under Glazer's spell will applaud Under the Skin as visionary. Those who don't will find it dull, opaque, and largely a waste of time. It's easy for me to see both viewpoints although my personal perspective is closer to the former than the latter.

On the surface, Under the Skin would seem to be yet another movie about covert aliens on Earth hunting people. We're never explicitly told why the aliens are here, although it's clear they're using the siren's song of sex to entice men to their doom. There are hints but the narrative prefers to maintain a sense of mystery. (The book is more explicit when it comes to backstory.) At times, viewers may note superficial similarities to the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Lifeforce, Species, and a bunch of Doctor Who stories. But the way in which the story unfolds is unlike any of those. Glazer demands the audience's patience and provides hints that need to be connected in the mind of the viewer.

The alien, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, doesn't have a name and she rarely speaks. She spends most of the movie wandering around the bleak, open wilds of Scotland, seeking unattached men she can seduce then entomb. She's selective about her choices, picking individuals who are unlikely to be missed, at least in the near-term. She has a male helper who provides assistance and cleans up after her. The longer the alien remains within her human shell, however, the more the compulsions and sensations of her body begin to infect her. Initially a coldly calculating killer - there's a wrenching scene in which she leaves a wailing, unattended child alone on a rocky beach after both of its parents have died - she begins to feel compassion. She lets one victim escape. She begins to revel in the way her body feels. It all proves to be too much for her and her helper, sensing she has lost her sense of purpose, begins hunting her.

Glazer favors long, lingering shots. There are many scenes in which he plants a tripod and continues to film after the action has moved on. This approach, so antithetical to the quick-cut format favored in current cinema, establishes the mood. It forces patience. Glazer gets a strong performance from his leading lady who throws herself into the role with abandon. With only occasional snippets of dialogue, she has to build a character largely out of facial expressions and body language. The scene in which she examines her nude form in front of a mirror is both strangely erotic and haunting. This is an alien beginning to come to grips with the capabilities of the body she in which she is hiding.

The setting, so desolate and oddly beautiful, is the perfect place to set a film of this sort. Scotland is at least as important a character as the alien, with none of men who make brief appearances rating more than a passing mention. A cynic could summarize Under the Skin as "Scarlett Johansson wanders around Scotland picking up men and occasionally taking her clothing off" and it wouldn't be far wrong, but it would also miss the mark completely. Under the Skin is the kind of film that gets to you in ways you don't necessarily expect or understand. It's not easily digested and the ending, while not a cliffhanger, doesn't provide a satisfying sense of closure. Those intrigued by the possibilities of "existential science fiction/horror" will find something special in these 107 minutes. Others would be advised to spend their $10 elsewhere.

Under the Skin (United Kingdom/United States, 2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Screenplay: Walter Campbell, based on the novel by Michel Faber
Cinematography: Daniel Landlin
Music: Mica Levi
U.S. Distributor: A24 Films
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2014-04-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1