In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plays a mysterious extraterrestrial stalking prey (read: men) along the West Coast of Scotland. After assuming the appearance of one particularly unfortunate Scottish dame, Johansson’s unnamed alien prowls the streets in a nondescript cargo van, pretending to need directions in an effort to seek out unsuspecting (and lustful) loners willing to throw caution to the wind and accept a ride from the black-haired beauty.
Overseen by a male attendant (played by former Irish motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams), Johansson’s character is completely oblivious to the dangers and horrors of the world, a singularly focused siren, pursuing one male victim after the next, leading each to a horrifying end inside her slaughterhouse. Until an unusual encounter causes the uncaring predator to empathize with a quarry and question her own place in humanity.
Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) directs Under the Skin - which was inspired by Michel Faber’s 2001 novel of the same name. However, while the movie borrows the core premise of the book, Glazer trades out a number of key details in the interest of a significantly more subtle narrative. In the novel, Johansson’s alien creature has a name and the plot provides a steady stream of exposition to help flesh out select sci-fi elements. Yet, the film does not labor over specifics and, instead, leaves a lot of interpretation to the viewer – both in terms of the central protagonist and larger world building. The result is a beautiful and haunting movie that prioritizes nuance at nearly every turn, sacrificing traditional moviemaking elements (like clear-cut exposition) to provide an opportunity for thoughtful insight into the human condition.
That said, despite its “Scarlett Johansson is a seductive alien” marketing hook, fans of the actress (or the sci-fi genre) will probably find Under the Skin is too art house for mainstream appeal. While Glazer’s film succeeds as contemplative artistic expression, moviegoers who were expecting a detailed story about aliens hiding in plain sight will be left wanting. Still, for viewers who are not put-off by a philosophical glimpse at humanity through the unique, and callous, perspective of an extraterrestrial creature living (and hunting) among us, there are plenty of interesting ideas and gorgeous visuals to appreciate in Under the Skin.
Glazer, along with cinematographer Daniel Landin, not to mention a brave performance from Johansson, ensure that even the most bizarre sci-fi ideas translate into beautiful imagery onscreen. The actress is captivating in the role – a true feat considering nearly all of her stalking scenes were completely improvised. Johansson, disguised in a black wig and red lipstick, driving a van rigged with six hidden cameras, actually approached random men on the streets of Scotland, striking up flirtatious conversations in character – so that her Under the Skin director could capture authentic reactions from male targets. Beyond the improvisation work, Johansson is charged with a number of tough scripted scenes, selling a vicious as well as manipulative predator one minute, only to see the apathetic visage unravel to make room for curiosity and sheer terror.
Under the Skin is nuanced and will not appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for legitimate criticism either. Regardless of an evocative tone and stirring leading lady, Glazer retreads story material and thematic ideas that audiences will have seen before. Scenes inside the alien kill room provide an interesting variation on similar seductive siren tales but the larger journey of Johansson’s character isn’t as original as other aspects of the production.
Additionally, Glazer fails to find the right balance between the character’s journey and heavy-handed commentary – resulting in setups that beat audiences over the head with thematic messaging while key plot beats are rushed and underdeveloped. This isn’t to say the film should have provided answers to its sci-fi mythology; but, once the creature steps outside of its comfort zone and into the world of genuine human relationships, the interactions needed to be as impactful as any thematic parallels that Glazer is attempting to highlight. Unfortunately, they are not.
Nevertheless, Under the Skin is a provocative movie experience – one that can truly be defined as an auteur effort. Given drastic subduing of the source text in the interest of a more interpretative film, Glazer manages to take a sharp sci-fi idea and wrap it with smart rumination on what makes us (and only us) human – both the good and the bad. Through Glazer’s alien microscope we are not just one thing: we are brave, we are scared, we are monsters, and we are food. For cinephiles that enjoy artistic debate more than concrete answers, the film allows an intriguing platform for discussion and reflection – albeit one where the moment to moment seduction proves to be significantly more enticing than what is literally “under the skin.”
If you’re still on the fence about Under the Skin, check out the trailer below:
Under the Skin runs 108 minutes and is Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language. Now playing in theaters.
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