‘Under the Skin’ Review

Published 4 months ago by , Updated August 15th, 2014 at 8:56 pm,

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin Poster Under the Skin Review

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.

Scarlett Johansson Alien Under the Skin Under the Skin Review

Scarlett Johansson in ‘Under the Skin’

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.

Scarlett Johansson Scotland Under the Skin Under the Skin Review

The prey and his predator 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.

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin Character Under the Skin Review

Jonathan Glazer’s depiction of malevolent extraterrestrial life.

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:

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Under the Skin runs 108 minutes and is Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language. Now playing in theaters.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5
(Very Good)

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45 Comments

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  1. I posted this in the open discussion, but I saw Under the Skin last night and found it fascinating. It was compelling without having much of a plot, story or character development. This is a good write up. I’d hesitate to use the term “kill room” though.

    SJ was wonderful and gave such a nuanced performance. I still don’t know what I think about this film. I’ll have to see it again if only to figure out what the deal was with the motorcycle guy (and gang). Was he a keeper? An alien himself?

    • POSSIBLE SPOILERS….Skip this comment just incase.

      I saw it a couple of weeks ago and thought it was a great film. It really isn’t very deep story-wise or have much dialog to speak of, but is really more of an experience. You sort of live through the alien’s situations with her/it.

      I thought the bike riders (As there is more than one of them at one point) are handlers assigned to each female “honey trap” alien (or possibly sythetic machine) I didn’t twig at first, but the van in the beginning belonged to the previous female agent. I have a feeling they have a limited lifespan and all seem to fall prey to similar fates sooner or later. They prey on Human males because it is easier to get males to accept a lift so willingly, but at the same time put themselves in very dangerous situations.
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  2. After the terrible reviews for Transcendence from both critics and audiences alike I’ve decide to go see this this weekend instead.
    The only thing is that I have to travel over a half hour to see it.
    Connecticut is a cultural dead zone. :(

    • Oh come on, don’t dis Connecticut like that haha.

    • Just be careful not catch a ride with any strange women in white vans.

    • i saw transcendence, it had an interesting premise and convinced me to see rather
      then waste my money on another overbloated spiderman movie. that being said
      however transcendence fell apart in the last 45 minutes and too much confusion
      (a signature nolan attribute). acting was pretty good by the cast though, i gave the
      movie a C for at least being watchable.

      • Looks like you made the wrong decision because TA Spider-man 2 was pretty awesome.

        • amazing spiderman 2 is awesome for those who read the ultimates and those who are
          new spiderman fans since the ultimates was released and really dont know parkers
          history. for those of us that do know the long history sony’s spiderman will run out
          of gas without his avenger buddies and all other marvel heroes. its like sony is trying
          to turn chicken into steak with all these villians.

          • Just a side note. The movie concentrates on mainly electro with Harrys transformation into the green goblin being a final act moment purely setting up for another sequel. Rhino is literally introduced as the ending shot to the movie also presumably being saved for the next movie.

      • Transcendence isn’t a Nolan movie. And I completely disagree with you.

  3. It was surprisingly a really good independent film. I agree with the majority, 4 stars. 4 stars mostly for great acting performances, but really not much story or fleshed out backdrop. In this case though it worked not having much story because it made it a mystery and reminds me more of Fargo.

    • It reminded you of Fargo..your serious??? You can say that with a straight face…i

      • Fargo also had very little story but was more of a drama set in the Alaskan wilderness. In that film the audience never really quite connected to the protagonist yet found themselves drawn into the drama of its setting.

        It had a TV series similar to Fargo for about 10 seasons, called Northern Exposure which also wasn’t popular yet drew in viewers. It contained very little story but had a lot of drama going on between various character factions, which is exactly what Under the Skin does except it throws caution to the wind and includes horror.

        • Agreed. Fargo was great but when it came to overall story it wasn’t really the best but they knew how to draw an audience in with the overall drama within different characters. Under the Skin does the same thing with a horror spin to it.

  4. I really enjoyed it. Scarlett was a great actress for the film, and her english accent was impeccable.The story told so much about male gaze, objectification, and power- which scarlett was perfect for seeing as how much only people talk about her t and a. It was a beautiful film.

    • Under the Skin feels a lot like Alan Wake the game.

      It has that same essence and that’s why it is something higher, simply Art.

  5. Any movie that has ScarJo taking her clothes off deserves a 4 star rating. ^_^

    This movie reminds of that classic Hall& Oates song : oo here she comes, she’s a maneater. Oo here she comes, watch out boy she’ll chew you up

  6. Anything like Species plot? Maybe while drunk?

  7. Her bags look a little smaller don’t they??

  8. First film I have ever walked out on…ever!! I literally could no take it one more second.An excruciating mess…ive seen HS class films that were better made.Avoid at all costs..you have been warned.

    • It certainly isn’t for everyone.

    • It’s not for everyone. I remember people saying the same thing about Fargo and look at the fan base for that movie. I can see the same thing going on with this movie as well.

  9. You had me at Scarlett Johansson.

  10. Agreed with the above. If they were going to make an Alan Wake movie they should make it like this film, very little story but with lots going on in the characters.

  11. Very unique experience. I was glued to the screen from the start trying to figure out what this film was doing, where it was going, why these events were happening, how and who these aliens were. A lot of questions go unanswered and sometimes that annoys me in films, however ‘Under The Skin’ provides just enough for the viewer to be able to piece things together and make up their own satisfying/logical/reasonable/feasible conclusion – and that’s what I really like. It got me thinking during and after the film. I keep thinking about it. It’s certainly fascinating.
    Obviously not for everyone. I would recommend watching it though purely for how different it is compared to most science fiction films out there. It provides something different, to me it feels fresh. I like seeing this sort of diversity explored within a genre.
    Good atmosphere and very beautiful in places. The part where we get to see the victims inside their trap and what happens to one of them was eerie and mesmerising. It was creepy and very pretty at the same time. Was it CGI or real material floating in liquid? I couldn’t tell.
    I also loved the music that played whenever she lured someone into the house or when something ‘alien’ was going to happen. Whenever you hear that you know something weird’s going to happen.
    All in all a refreshingly unusual experience I would recommend to people wanting to watch something different.

  12. Aweful, pretentious, overly-indulgent, arty-wanna-be snooze fest.

  13. Pretty slow moving and boring. Visually interesting but obscure narrative.

  14. This movie strikes me as something a director does just to impress other directors.

  15. Maybe I’m all alone here, but this movie was a PIECE OF GARBAGE. It barely had a plot. Watch it if you want, but “under the skin” represents an hour and 40 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. She has a hot rocking’ bod but it’s still not worth it.

  16. Possibly the worst film I have every actually seen. I kept watching it in the hope it would improve or something would happen, it didn’t.

  17. BORING
    The stupidest movie I have see all year. I am so glad the qaLIEN GETS TORCHED IN THE END. THE PLOT MADE NO SENSE WHATSOEVER!

  18. After renting this along with transcendence My wife elected to watch this movie first. Being a fan of sci-fi myself, I was taken aback by the shear oddity of this film. I found myself playing a game on my phone rather than watching this movie. The film was long and drawn out, with little if any dialogue. This leaves the viewer to be constantly trying to figure out what is going on. I would not recommend this film to anyone. I was left with a similar feeling to that of the movie gerry. “why did I rent this”.
    What could have been an intense sci-fi horror, turned out to be a skin fest of both male and female cast members, that left the viewers (my family) staring at each other saying what is going on.
    This movie is just odd. If you feel like being confused, and somewhat bored rent away.

    • The problem with this movie is this. If you pay attention it’s not too hard to follow but if you pay attention you will be bored to the point you cannot pay attention. There is a scene where she looks into a mirror and within 5 seconds you should understand the purpose of the scene but then what do you do for the rest of the 5 min of her staring at herself in the mirror.

  19. Watched this last night as I am an avid Sci Fi fan, but was unsure about this movie. If the 40 minutes of heavy breathing in 2001 A Space Odyssey didn’t bother you, than this movie is for you. The movie, like many others, is driven by a background soundtrack that keeps the tension on high while the action is simmering on low. It’s a psychological study of droning on without making much of a point about anything. There are some decent effects, but at the end, nothing is solved and we know only a little more than we did at the beginning. I’ve become very suspicious about movies that Johannson chooses to play in. She continues her vapid Lost in Translation stare and her primary acting skill seems to be to look as though she does not understand the question? The dialogue is sparse and almost completely small talk. Great Sci Fi this is not, and personally I’m still waiting for someone to finally tackle an immense work like Heinlein’s “Time Enough For Love” or “Stranger in a Strange Land”. People have no idea what they are missing.

  20. The positive reviews for this movie blow my mind. It’s not like I’m below elusive movies with little or no narrative, or lack of plot, etc., I like a lot of them. But this movie just has NOTHING happening whatsoever, not on screen, not in my head, apparently not in the director’s head. I can understand some people’s fascination as they tried to figure out what was going on, and it worked that way for me in Tree of Life, one of my favorite films. But here, I was immediately irritated, then bored, then vaguely fascinated that anyone would ever praise this movie.

  21. Worst film ever next to meet the huckabees..

  22. I am a freelance ‘writer’ and a programmer by day. That makes me ‘logical’ and emotional. A duel conflict. I am a STORY person. I am sorry but U.T.S. was TOOOOOOO ‘ABSTRACT’ for me despite SJH’s (naunce as many put it) performance. I was left in a mass state of confusion. Why is she on Earth? How did she get here? Who’s the dude on the Bike?? Why are the men taken and devoured the way are? How did she LEARN TO DRIVE?? Where did she get the van? What ever happened to the disfigured dude? She let him go? Why is he captured one moment and streaking along the grass the next?? The ending…. burned??? She’s an advanced alien and doesn’t know to STOP, DROP, and ROLL when on fire…especially in SNOW?? OH, and the person who burns her…a would be RAPIST is the HERO??!! I’m not bashing. I NEED more story substance. And a baby left on the beach to die was disturbing and sad. An advanced alien can’t tell a baby is helpless. Takes men that won’t be missed (which is smart) but abandons a baby to die. Take it in the van with the swimmer and drop it off in a back yard. Or was the point to show lack of emotion by our ‘vague’ ET?? PLEASE, I WELCOME help and answers.

    • Think about it this way. It is a genius way to make you want to see a sequel.

      • I’d like to see this again with Director, Producer and SJH commentary! :-)

  23. I don’t think this movie is for everyone.I felt like this was an intrinsic view of the world around us everyday. People rushing here to there, no idea what they are truly looking for, basing so much of our lives off what is a perceived beauty with the real wonders all around us ignored. The indictment of ourselves being shown clear through an aliens eyes. Thus showing even another lifeform cannot understand all the complexities in people. In the end the instrument devised to ensnare others becomes her own trap once in the world trying to set out on her own. A definite reflection of our indignance of life and our endless replacabilty within our society that only values elements of life to never understand and appreciate life and all the beauty it has not just the perceived beauty by itself.

  24. If focus well you know what is it about and all will get clear first
    The motor Cycle guy = ===== >the devil
    The girl =sex desire.
    And we are the humen
    And a little hint the devil great the desire from another work ( the murder) a ant bit represent betryad….. More ok the desire started to work and consume people from inside and nothing is left but empty after the desire finish only 1 survived who was not thinkning about desire .. U know the rest …. What hapen next the desire wanted to test to be a human but that not work desire can not eat sweet because (think ;) … Desire will allways be vergin other wise it will loose the charm attracting…..
    and for more u can ask me all make sense ;)

    • So you think its not about Aliens .,,,?!!!!!!!???

  25. I didn’t care for it, not until the last fifteen or so minutes, but as I softened to her, I still felt I went through a bit of boredom and to what end. Not a bad movie, just not a movie I’d care to see again.

  26. I saw this movie and initially liked it very much but became concerned because it overlooked some obvious problems with the narrative especially towards the end where 1) somehow the ugly man escapes, and 2) something scares her in the cabin in the woods. The more I think about it, though, these details do not matter. The viewer is given room to think for themselves and I appreciated the opportunity to fill in the gaps myself. Most of the movie provides enough information to draw general conclusions and powerful emotions. Some people will hate it because this is a sensual rather than a narrative experience. People expect stories and this is more like an out of body experience. I found it fascinating. I learned things about people, about humanity. We are good. We are lustful. We are kind. We are ugly. We are stupid. We are beautiful. We are tragic.

    I will give a positive rating to any movie that is unforgettable. Or a movie that can change the way I see humanity. I think the scene where she leaves the baby on the beach will stay with me forever. And the conversation she has with the ugly man and her decision to run away after his escape. These scenes were powerful, logical, and downright fascinating. I can’t stop thinking about this movie.

    It was disturbing to see humanity through the lens of this thing that walked among us in such a friendly city. That she was looking for lonely men made her less despicable. That she attempted to fit in for a while and try to live among us was both charming and pathetic. What happened at the end of the movie made sense, because she didn’t fit in. She was objectified by men… brought out the worst in most (but the best in others).

    Art is left up for interpretation, and I think this qualifies. People will either hate or love this movie. It was too over-simplified to mask its deficits with confusing b*******… it did not attempt to hide its flaws. It was deliberately made this way, whether you liked it or not. I liked it better than most movies i have ever seen. It gave me new insights. It got under my skin.

  27. I totally have failed to see the value of this film, especially as I’m a fan of the book. Whilst people who like the film talk about it “not concentrating on detail” a more accurate description would be “totally failing to engage with the story”. It is much less disturbing than the book, particularly in the very sanitised fate that awaits Isserley’s captives (that’s the Scarlet Johannson part – I’m not sure if she is even named).
    Even more bizarre, the books character, who it is clear is in a deformed body, which she can hardly bear to contemplate and who evidently lives a life of a lot of pain and fear, and is described by others as ugly, becomes a fashion model serenely swanning through Glasgow (the books is set in the Highlands). WTF?

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