Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin is a quasi-sci fi indie movie with an interesting premise that never quite goes anywhere. A lot of fascinating ideas are presented, but the film’s lack of forward momentum ultimately lets us down and leaves us hoping for more. However, its release in 2013 was met with wide critical acclaim for its artistic style, courtesy of director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and Scarlett Johansson’s daring performance. The film is an adaptation of the 2000 novel of the same name, and it features a cast of mostly non-actors caught on hidden camera on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland.
The film begins with a small light and a voiceover from a character credited only as “The Female” (Johansson). She’s repeating letters and words, seemingly in an attempt to learn them for the first time. As the camera pans closer to the light, several abstract shapes come together and transform into a human eyeball. The film then cuts to a motorcyclist, who pulls over to the side of the road and brings a (dead? paralyzed?) woman from the marshes into a parked white van. In a white room, the Female stands naked over the body and begins taking off her clothes.
The Female, now fully dressed, drives around Scotland in that same white van and begins having conversations with men. She seduces them and brings them home, where they find themselves in a completely black room sinking into a dark liquid where their insides are removed but their outer skin remains.
The Female continues to drive around hunting for men, and begins paying close attention to people’s mannerisms in an attempt to more closely resemble them. She engages in simple acts such as putting on lipstick, walking, and trying on clothes, all with an eerie unfamiliarity.
At a beach, the Female tries to pick up a man, who then ends up swimming out to rescue a drowning couple. He nearly drowns as well and returns to shore, where the Female bashes him on the head with a rock and brings him to the van. The couple is left to die while their toddler is abandoned on the beach. Later on, the Female picks up another guy in a bar and brings him home, and he too sinks into the dark liquid.
While driving around, the Female meets a man who’s physically disfigured (played by Adam Pearson, who has a real-life condition that causes large tumors on his face), and the two have a conversation about prejudice. In a sudden act of understanding, she allows him to escape. However, he’s caught by the motorcyclist and quickly taken away. The motorcyclist now goes in search of the Female, who’s apparently disobeying orders from whatever unseen force they’re working for.
She tries to eat a beautiful cake in a café, but can’t swallow a bite of it. A man meets her and brings her to his house, but they’re unable to have sex. She examines herself and discovers that she only looks like a woman, and has no working anatomy.
Distraught, she runs into the forest. She falls asleep in a shelter and is awoken by a local logger who attempts to rape her. As she fights him off, the worker manages to rip the skin off her back to reveal charcoal black skin underneath. As she begins pulling off her skin to reveal a black-skinned creature, the worker returns to set her on fire. The motorcyclist looks on as she burns down to ashes.
Under the Skin has a great concept, which comes off brilliantly at certain moments. There are plenty of striking visuals, the scenes of the Female interacting with men unaware they’re on camera are awkwardly intriguing, and the film as a whole has a unique atmosphere. (And of course, many will see Johannson’s nude scenes as worth the price of admission all on their own, even though they’re easy enough to find online). However, as the film drones on and on, the audience’s attention and stamina are put to the test by repetitive scenes of driving around, finding men, and luring them to their deaths.
Reportedly, the source novel is about a creature who comes to Earth looking for men to turn into the alien version of caviar. The movie is more opaque about its premise, but it’s not difficult for us to piece things together pretty early on. Unfortunately, the plot never really moves forward from there.
Under the Skin received widespread acclaim from international journals and critics, and it’s easy to see why. The film is cryptic enough to provide meaning for those who search, and it’s artsy enough to stand out among typical Hollywood sci-fi and genre fare. However, watching the film is infuriating in more ways than one.
The film tries very hard to be artsy, but at times feels like a student film from a bright-eyed freshman. While it’s possible to be both artsy and entertaining—just look at this year’s Best Picture winner—Under the Skin is merely artsy for the sake of being artsy. This dulls the overall messages of the film, which is frustrating, because these messages are worthwhile and abundant: How do we treat fellow lifeforms? How do we treat celebrities and how do they see us? The film is rife with ideas and creativity, but they’re dampened by the ultra-repetitive style and decreasing energy. This film finds one note and plays it until we’re either deaf or dead from boredom.
Another strange aspect of the film is Johansson’s accent. It comes and goes on a whim, and it makes Shia LaBeouf’s terrible British accent in Nymphomaniac sound authentic. Either perfect an accent, or don’t use it, and for the audience’s sakes, don’t change dialects every other word.
While I applaud the film for going against the grain, and it’s always refreshing to watch a cinematic experiment, Under the Skin ultimately fails at being a captivating work of art. Some may argue that the film is supposed to be slow and repetitive and nearly lifeless. They’re correct, but that doesn’t change the fact that the experience of watching this film is more often than not tedious. No, art is not always entertainment, but unless we’re moved in some way, or we walk away with a powerful message swirling in our minds, then why sit through an ultimately boring and tepid film? Walking out of Under the Skin, I was left with nothing to think about and no desire to ever watch this movie again.