Published on March 21st, 2014 | by Allan Brown12
Under The Skin Review
Movie Review: Under The Skin (2014)
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.
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.
The 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.
While 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’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.
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.