Review: Under the Skin
PLOT: An alien in human form (Scarlett Johansson) roams Scotland, luring men into her nest so they can be consumed. After a while, the realities of having a human body, and being desired, begin to have a strange effect on her.
REVIEW: Having debuted a few weeks ago at the Venice Film Festival, UNDER THE SKIN has already had a divisive reaction from the critics. Some have hailed it a masterpiece, while other have claimed it's meandering and self-indulgent. To be sure, the plot is as thin as they come. Scarlett Johansson is a sexy alien, and the first half of the film is literally nothing but her driving around, picking up horny men, and enticing them back to her nest.
The reason why she needs them is never made clear. Johansson only has a few lines of dialogue, and all of it is used to seduce men (many of whom speak with nearly indecipherable accents). The same sequence is repeated over and over, with men following her into the darkness as she disrobes, only to sink in fluid, in which their insides seem to be consumed and turned into a strange substance she appears to be collecting for a higher power. She seems to be alone on earth, with the exception of a man on a motorcycle who follows her around.
Johansson is intentionally robotic throughout. She doesn't convey any emotion, unless she's with a man, where she tries to be seductive. Apparently director Jonathan Glazer often used a cinema verité style, meaning a lot of the men she meets are non actors. Given the way Johansson looks (and she frequently goes nude) it's not hard to believe they would be more than willing to be lured by her.
The most memorable sequence in the film is when Johansson meets a deformed young man, who seems frightened by her kindness. This episode leads to a somewhat more intriguing second half, as Johansson tries to experience humanity for herself. Don't go in expecting much other than the vaguest of plots.
More than anything, UNDER THE SKIN is an exercise in style for Glazer, who in addition to SEXY BEAST in 2000, also directed the frequently reviled, but underrated BIRTH. His movies are nothing if not inventive, and UNDER THE SKIN is filled with interesting visuals. For the most part, the film is unpolished, having been shot in DV, but there are occasional shots, such as the opening reveal of Johansson's iris, that are astonishing. There's also interesting uses of light and what appear to be in-camera FX, which are accompanied by an extremely memorable, strings-heavy score by experimental composer Micachu.
There's definitely a reason so many critics have been cool towards UNDER THE SKIN. It almost defies you not to like it, and Glazer doesn't seem to be interested at all in adhering to the trappings of the sci-fi horror genre. It's experimental and without a doubt a real art film. Like many other critics I felt it nearly impossible to be drawn into the story, but I appreciate the craft behind it, and can't deny it has a handful of brilliant moments. Whether this will ever be known as something more than “the movie where Scarlett Johansson gets naked” remains to be seen, but Glazer deserves more consideration than that.