Under the Skin

United Kingdom. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, 2013. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson. 109 minutes.

There are times when the standard Nightmare Gallery review format–where I start by taking a few hundred words to describe the basic premise and through-line of the film’s story–does me absolutely no good when it comes time to sit down and write, and this is one of them.

If you know only one thing about Under the Skin, you know it as the movie in which Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who seduces and abducts men. Now, chances are you’ve seen at least a couple of other movies that could be summed up using that same sentence, or at least a similar one. If nothing else, you’re reading my blog; I specialize in certain subsets of film, and “movies about alien temptresses” fits into some of those subsets rather comfortably.

There’s no way I can describe the basic premise of this movie without making it sound like something you’ve seen a thousand times before. But that does Under the Skin a great disservice. It reduces the film to its most banal level. None of what is memorable or remarkable about the film comes from that. If you specifically want to see a movie about a sexy alien lady, you’re probably best off forgoing this and instead checking if Species is available on Netflix Instant.

You’ve probably heard Ebert’s old axiom that “a movie isn’t about what it’s about, but rather how it’s about it.” If you want proof of that, here it is.

Despite modern effects, a small amount of grue and a frank depiction of human sexuality, Under the Skin is really an old-fashioned science fiction movie. Most modern SF films are really actioners at heart, with fantastic technological concepts placed on it to give characters reasons to shoot things, blow shit up, and maybe talk a little philosophy during the interludes between shooting things and blowing shit up (Godzilla and Looper being two recent examples). There is nothing wrong with this sort of film as a subgenre and I have enjoyed many films that can be described as such. But in prose form, science fiction is considered “the literature of ideas” and when it comes to the cinematic form of the genre I think we’ve lost some of that over the last couple of decades.

The images that introduce Under the Skin recall the “convergence” and “Star Gate” scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have to believe that’s a deliberate reference on the part of director (and co-screenwriter) Jonathan Glazer. To me, they said, “This a thought-provoking, dialog-light science fiction film, and we’ll prepare you for the experience by using visual quotes from the ultimate thought-provoking, dialog-light science fiction film.”

But like 2001 (and unlike a great many recent films that employ a lot of obscure symbolism in the hopes that said symbolism will make them look deeper and more thoughtful than they actually are), it’s clear what the events in Under the Skin are and what they mean. Glazer admirably trusts the audience to be intelligent enough to sort things out without reams of laboriously contrived exposition. It’s not a film that requires rapt, focused concentration, but it does require you to use your brain a bit.

Mind you, you’re going to want to give it your rapt, focused concentration, because it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of cinema. It’s beautiful in the way that Kubrick’s films are beautiful, and Tarkovsky’s, and Lynch’s, and Von Trier’s. The flip-side of the “exposition-free, you have to figure it out for yourself” coin is that Glazer is able to tell a story chiefly with images, and so often those images are so brilliant that you will want to fall to your knees and weep for joy that such beauty exists in the world.

These elements that distinguish Under the Skin also ensure that it’s not going to be for everyone. The pace is slow and there’s not a lot of talking, which is not something I had much of a problem with. But I have to think that many viewers are going to see it as “Scarlett Johansson driving around for an hour and then Scarlett Johansson walking around for another hour,” and those viewers are going to find it something of a snooze. I don’t agree, but I do have some sympathy for that viewpoint.

In addition to that, with all the focus on Johansson’s unnamed lead character, I was a bit surprised that it wasn’t more of a showcase for her as an actress. Don’t get me wrong, I think she put in a very good performance (and I’ve never been particularly impressed with her). But a number of actresses were considered for the role and I don’t think many of them would have put in demonstrably worse performances in the role (not even perpetual whipping-girl Megan Fox).

Glazer’s reliance on non-professional actors for the supporting roles also result in a few awkward line readings although I think the verisimilitude the film gains more than makes up for it.

Personal preferences aside, Under the Skin is a genuinely great film that I dearly hope eventually earns the epithet of “classic.” I can’t recommend it highly enough. One of the best of the year, so far.

Under the Skin poster

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