Review scarlette-johansson-under-the-skin

Published on March 21st, 2014 | by Allan Brown


Under The Skin Review


Movie Review: Under The Skin (2014)under-the-skin-movie-poster-scarlette-johansson

Rating: 15

Running Time: 108 mins

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Writers: Walter Campbell (screenplay), Michel Faber (novel)

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jessica Mance

Plot: An alien seductress stalks and preys upon unsuspecting males in Scotland.




Movie Review World

It has been a full 13 years since director Jonathan Glazer delivered us the sublime British gangster film Sexy Beast. Since then, apart from a release in 2004 – Birth with Nicole Kidman, the director has been altogether absent from the film industry. Indeed, it seems Glazer is a film-maker that does not like to be rushed. So what has he been doing with all his time I hear you cry? The answer; wrestling tirelessly with an adaptation of Michel Faber’s science fiction novel Under the Skin (The canons). A story revolving around the predatory pursuits of a mysterious alien female who falls to earth in Scotland. The results; a bold, yet frustratingly ambiguous, stripped back to the bone, art house film that offers more of a visual and aural experience than any obvious coherency.

scarlett-johansson-in-white-van-in-under-the-skin-filmThe slither of a plot-line centres on Laura (Scarlett Johansson), a visitor from a distant world who spends her days and nights on Earth, diligently scouring the streets of Glasgow in an attempt to ensnare unsuspecting male victims that hitch a ride in her white transit van, a ride they are unlikely to thank her for.

As she dispatches her prey, a task she appears to take no obvious pleasure in, a mundane job assigned to her by her leather-clad, motor-biking brethren, here to see she gets the job done. However, it isn’t long before tiny shreds of compassion and humanity begin to stir within her.

Under the Skin offers an ambiguous art house venture were audience members will be faced with a purely visual experience, devoid of any emotional, physiological, dramatic or even character substance. Indeed even the hardened cinephile will be pushed to their limits with a film that provides far too little to go on.

A bold, yet frustratingly ambiguous, stripped back to the bone, art house film that offers more of a visual and aural experience than any obvious coherency

Is the obvious dilution of emotion and drama on screen present to help us empathise with Laura, an alien being devoid of such human traits? What are Laura’s motivations for what she does and more importantly what prompts her sudden change of morality? These areas of the film remain vague and questionable throughout, as are many of its metaphors.

scarlett-johansson-walking through scottish village in the film under the skinWhile film makers like Nicolas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives – review) champion this purely thematic method of storytelling, a method that forces the audience to work hard to figure out themes and hidden narratives. It can be a refreshing and more satisfying experience than the norm but for it to work there must be enough breadcrumbs for the audience to follow, and here with Under the Skin, many scenes offer nothing to go on, leaving you with nothing more than a stab in the dark.

Another area the film falls victim too is repetition. We watch Laura prowling the streets for her next target for what seems like 80% of the film, each instance an almost carbon copy of the previous. This on top of a narrative the offers little coherency can at times feels arduous and will likely test the patience of most.

Scenes that evoke strong visual contrasts to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, are linked with scenes straight out of a Ken Loach drama

However, credit must be given to the films bold attempts to push the envelope of film by bravely crossing genres of low budget, British, kitchen-sink-drama with minimalist, elegant, art house, science fiction. Scenes that evoke strong visual contrasts to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, are linked with scenes straight out of a Ken Loach drama. Glazer’s choice to have sudden genre switches are both brave and commendable, even though they don’t always succeed in their attempt.

Scarlett-Johansson-in-underwear-in-the-movie-Under-the-SkinScarlett Johansson’s (who is almost unrecognisably plain) performance is equally commendable (and not just because she offers her first nude scenes). An A-List Hollywood actress in Glasgow city centre is about as alien as it comes, and perhaps this was the point. While her role does echo that of Natasha Henstridge’s character in Species, Johansson’s portrayal of an alluring alien siren goes much deeper. Her role offers very little verbal interaction and therefore her performance is based on physical reaction to the people she encounters. She is an alien assuming the body of a human and her cold stares, odd behaviours and slow transition from predatory to prey is captured wonderfully by  Johansson, who offers us a new angle on her “Black Widow” character.

An area the film unquestionably soars in its score and sound effects. These elements are perhaps the strongest element of the entire film. They hold the key to any tension or mystique felt onscreen, thanks to Mica Levi who successfully blurs the lines between score and sound effects like never before. It is a unique and dazzling experience and one that I felt worked wonderfully well for the film.

Under The Skin Review Allan Brown


Summary: Despite the film often falling victim to its own ambiguity and perhaps coming undone more than it stays together, there is much to praise here. Go in with an open mind and experience Glazer’s unique vision for yourself.


User Rating: 1.6 (1 votes)

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About the Author

Despite my 9-5 being consumed by the daily duties of an Electrician, Movie Review World serves as a platform for me to share my thoughts, explorations and reflections on one of my biggest passions, film.

12 Responses to Under The Skin Review

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Great review mate! I’ve been wondering about this one. As a Glaswegian myself, I’m very eager to see how they utilise the locations. It certainly looks suitably grim.

    • Allan Brown says:

      Cheers Mark. The one thing the film excels at is in utilising its locations – Glasgow looks and feels…like Glasgow. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing I leave for you to decide 😛

  2. Top review! Heard ridiculously mixed things about this. Some people saying it’s a masterpiece, some saying it’s terrible. I kinda want to see it still to make up my own mind.

    • Allan Brown says:

      Absolutely. It is a film that has and will continue to split audiences opinions. During my showing at least 10 folk walked. Despite it falling short for me (in many areas), it remains a film that I find myself unable to shake from my mind. Its bold and brave in its aim, but I think it looses sight somewhere along the way. Thanks for stopping by Terry and I look forward to hearing your opinions on the film in due course.

  3. Betty Bear says:

    Great review. Sounds like an interesting film. Do you think you will watch it again to try and see if a second viewing throws up any clarity? Or is it more of a one view wonder?

    • Allan Brown says:

      It is most definitely a multi layered film, however the themes explored through its purely visual storytelling format were not all that deep, thought provoking or indeed engaging enough to warrant a repeat viewing any time soon. Visually, it reaches for the stars and succeeds, but narratively it barely gets off the ground in what is at times an arduous 108 mins.

  4. thycriticman says:

    No:( The premise of folks being caught on camera with real life reactions when picked up sounded so interesting. So disappointed seeing such a low score and considering how challenging it is for me to get into art house films…..I feel like my eventual viewing will have the same results.

    I still will love you regardless Scarlett.

    • Allan Brown says:

      Don’t let my review put you off seeing it. There is lots to love here, it just failed to all gel for me. However, I do know many who absolutely fell in love with the film so it is most definitely splitting opinions and that surely is a good thing.

  5. Terrific review, I’m not sure if this is the kind of film I’d be into but your analysis is insightful. It’s interesting how Scarlett goes from a vocal performance in Her and here it’s primarily physical.

    • Allan Brown says:

      Thank you kind Sir. I agree, Scarlett Johansson has really impressed with her recent performances. She is proving herself to be so much more than just a pretty face 😛

  6. Joe says:

    Nice review. I saw the movie and what is “pushed to the limits” is the R rating as the movie clearly shows the male victims nude with full erections. It seems a NC-17 rating would be more appropriate. That said, I found the moving rather tedious and repetitive; only near the end did it begin to pick up any steam. If there is a moral lesson it might be that following after lust leads nowhere except sinking into a black abyss from which there is no escape.

    • Allan Brown says:

      Hey Joe, thanks for stopping by. Yes I found the film rather to ambiguous for its own good at times. That said, a second viewing does help narrow in on some of its clearer themes and aims. I feel Laura’s story is that of someone or something, who views mankind as nothing more than a easy commodity or food for harvesting. She uses mankinds weakness’s to achieve her goal, however, as she continues to observe humankind she begins to see other sides of humanity beginning to show and she becomes increasingly curious by it. Her curiosity extends to the point of her straying from the PLAN to experience some of her observations for herself. But when she is subjected to a horrific act, the brutal side of humanity is exposed, a side that she did not expect. By making herself vulnerable, her new found humanity is ultimately taken away as she meets her demise.
      The hunter who ultimately became the prey. I guess in the end the message is, mankind is beautiful, complex, unpredictable and ultimately flawed.

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