Under the Skin
Experimental sci-fi film wonders what it’s like to be human ... and then harvest the internal organs of other humans for mysterious alien purposes
Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
No matter what your ultimate opinion of it ends up being, British director Jonathan Glazer’s heavily atmospheric, highly experimental film Under the Skin will definitely rate as one of the stranger films you’ll see this year. Love it or hate it, this unnerving, enervated sci-fi fable is the kind of cinematic experience you aren’t likely to forget.
The film tells the story of a sexy female space alien (played by Scarlett Johansson), who wanders around Scotland seducing men into coming back to her dilapidated house and then dumping them into a giant vat of black goo which melts their skin off. Why is she doing all this? Under the Skin isn’t saying. In fact our main character’s designation as a space alien stems mostly from commentary by the filmmakers. The film itself remains tacit, relying on grim mood and icy atmosphere to tell its tale.
Laid out on paper, the basic plot sounds like Species, the 1995 sci-fi sex romp in which predatory alien Natasha Henstridge hits the streets to mate and kill. But Under the Skin has much more in common with Slava Tsukerman’s new wave head trip Liquid Sky. That androgynous cult gem from 1982 also deals with the topic of sex and space aliens, but feels more like a heavily art-directed drug trip than a piece of Hollywood entertainment. Glazer, who gave us the rawboned crime flick Sexy Beast and the controversial metaphysical romance Birth, heads right to the noncommercial end of the spectrum here. There’s precious little dialogue. None of the characters have names. And practically nothing happens.
Johansson drives aimlessly around Glasgow chatting up lonely men wandering the late-night streets. A mysterious man on a motorcycle shows up every once in a while to assist her. The soundtrack is insistent and ominous, bowstrings sawing away at violins like someone’s about to be killed in a Hitchcock movie. Occasionally we get jarring micro-close-ups of eyeballs or ants. There’s nudity. Then, more driving.
Those lured into the theater thinking they’re going to get a lot of sexy art-house action, however, will be sorely disappointed. There isn’t anything even slightly sexual going on in this film. The nudity is distinctly clinical, and most is of the full-frontal male variety. A bit of background research turns up the fact that many of our alien gal’s “victims” are not even actors. Glazer and Johansson apparently ambushed a bunch of real people, Borat-style, on the streets of Glasgow. Hidden cameras captured their actual reactions to Johansson’s sexual come-ons. (“Surprise! Turns out Scarlett Johansson doesn’t actually want to sleep with you. We’re just making a movie. Please sign this release.”) Surely that level of bait-and-switch cruelty violates some section of the Geneva Conventions. It’s gimmicky, but the performance-art aspirations of the film do point out how easy it is to sucker the male of the species. (Space aliens looking to abduct humans would do far better with an attractive brunette and a van than with a glowing spaceship and a tractor beam.)
Moody, torporific and weirdly stylish, Under the Skin may remind cult film aficionados of Panos Cosmatos’ trippy, self-consciously ’80s flashback Beyond the Black Rainbow. Elements of Nicolas Roeg’s alienation-filled The Man Who Fell to Earth also poke through. Like those previous films, the experience of actually watching it can be a bit of a slog. But the lingering effect is strong. It’s the sort of film you might find yourself appreciating a lot more after than during.
As the images of sunless Scotland and man-eating floors wear on, a hint of story does emerge. At first our main character appears like some robotic construct, switching from unblinking automaton to hypnotic sex kitten in a heartbeat. After an encounter with a sad young man afflicted by acromegaly, however, Johansson’s glassy-eyed succubus experiences a change of heart. She abandons her duties and wanders off into the countryside looking for a taste of real human experience.
The film has a lot of issues bubbling under its inky black surface. Since I’m not a female, I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this qualifies as a feminist parable or not—but it certainly brings up some interesting issues of exploitation, loneliness, vulnerability, gender roles and sexual expectations. Putting an actress like Scarlett Johansson, whose roles have often made great issue of her sexuality, in the part of an oft-naked woman luring men to their deaths would seem to confuse the issue. But as the story accrues, we start to realize the casting is rather savvy, playing on our prejudices and expectations. Johansson’s character isn’t some icy femme fatale. Ultimately she’s little more than a tool in some incomprehensible alien scheme. She is both exploiter and exploited. And the realization of her part leads to an ending that is appropriately circular and fittingly cruel.
No doubt Under the Skin will have a polarizing effect on audiences. You could call it pretentious and boring and stand your ground well in a debate. You could just as easily be intrigued by the film’s visual and aural originality, its unusual special effects and the enigmatic, psychosexual backdrop it offers up. No wonder those space aliens find us so confusing as a species.
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