“Under The Skin” ****1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jeremy McWilliams, Scott Dymond, Michael Moreland, Lynsey Taylor-Mackay, Dougie McConnell
Written by: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer (screenplay), Michel Faber (novel)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Some films, regardless of their quality, just haunt you- not in the traditional sense, but rather in the way that it lingers in your mind. Maybe it’s a stunning visual, a rousing piece of music, a bravura performance, or even the moment in your life that the film finds you, but something latches on and doesn’t let go. All of those examples apply to director Jonathan Glazer’s “Under The Skin”, which defies categorization, for it lacks a traditional narrative. It is neither a science fiction nor a horror film- in fact, one might be hard pressed to even label it as a ‘film’ that one goes to ‘see’. Instead, it is more of an experience, or a feeling- a nearly two-hour dream sequence, equal parts nightmare and erotica, with an extra-terrestrial predator (I guess?) as the central figure. Despite the occasional lull, “Under The Skin” is a sinister symphony of a film, wholly unique and engrossing.
The opening scene, is, well…something, for I can only provide an interpretation of what it entails. We are taken through a portal of sorts, as if enveloped by the imagery on-screen, as we hear a human female voice sounding out words that she most certainly has never spoken before. The camera moves out to reveal an eye, coupled with a familiar face, faded out to a familiar body. We know this figure to be Scarlett Johansson, but oddly enough there appears to be two of her. One is prone and immobile on the floor, while the other studies from above. What has happened here? The simplest explanation is that the steely figure above (the film calls her “Laura”) has ‘copied’ the stunned figure below, and will now go forward with ‘her’ purpose.
That purpose appears to be the systemic seduction of hapless young males for nefarious reasons. The chilly, damp villages and countrysides of Scotland become the perfect setting for this monster, who uses what she has gathered of human sexuality to lure men to her. Interestingly enough, “Laura” doesn’t just want any testosterone-crazed fool; instead, she wants those that are relatively unattached, men who won’t necessary be ‘missed’. This story recognizes the traits of an effective predator, and together with Johansson’s brilliant portrayal as a cool hunter and a warm soul, creates “Laura” as such. She gives her would-be victims just enough to be not only convinced of her intentions, but also the confidence to feel safe in doing so. In other words, she lets these men basically do the work for her- and the unnerving ritual begins.
“Laura” picks up these men in her white van (imagine that) and drives to a dark, seemingly abandoned location (of course), and lures them inside. What awaits them is something I cannot completely give away- not due to a desire to maintain the film’s secrets, but rather because I cannot fully explain it. The setting is a mind-bending, alluring, wholly alien trap- a reflective, opaque nightmare of a hot tub. The victims, all systematically stripping down to their birthday suits, are drawn in with the idea that “Laura” will, of course, have sex with them. These poor guys are in over their heads, literally, as they sink into a state of suspended animation (I think). What comes after is something I’ll leave for you to experience; suffice to say, I am not easily shaken, but the fates of these victims are depicted in a way that, quite simply, unhinged the airtight doors to my psyche. Bravo, filmmakers, you managed to break through my fear defenses.
One particular would-be victim, a gentleman with a facial disfigurement, seems to affect “Laura”, to the point where she lures him to the trap, but cannot complete the deed. At this point, the film seems to want to play with the idea of the ‘human experience’, and shows “Laura” viewing herself in a mirror (ok, not herself, but her borrowed human skin). From that moment, she attempts some basic human activities, and oddly enough, it appears to send her reeling. Advanced she may be as an extra-terrestrial, but she cannot process the sensations. What does this mean? Does the film want to reaffirm humanity as a unique, viable species despite our shortcomings (walking into danger for sex, violence, etc)? Perhaps her reactions are simply the filmmakers need to explore how an alien might feel. I cannot be sure, but I like the result.
The science fiction sap in me kept wanting to ask more questions. Why are these aliens doing this? What is that opaque nightmare composed of? How do these creatures solve the problem of our atmosphere? Who is the motorcycle man who appears to direct “Laura” through some sort of empathic connection? This film is smarter than that, and in the process shows off some science fiction skills; by alluding to, but never directly answering, the solutions to these questions, we’re left to ponder them in our minds, a surefire way to keep a film in your mind.
It is entirely possible that those of you reading this may see the film and come away with entirely different feelings than I. Some may see this for what I do- a jarring ball of creepy. Others may fall asleep, or come away from it desperately wanting to accost me for recommending it. Others may walk out of the theater (I counted multiple departures in the theater I was at). It’s that kind of film, or experience, if you will. No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself on, one thing is for certain- it will stick with you, for better or worse. There is enough unnerving and beautiful imagery, jolting arcs in the score with a sinister undertone, and genuinely tense moments that lead me to declare that Glazer and crew have managed to successfully and intelligently create something that can do what few films can claim- have an effect on an audience long after they’ve viewed it. I’d even venture a guess that the filmmakers, even Scarlett Johansson, would be more interested in hearing how their film made you feel as opposed to your final opinion. Myself? I can’t imagine forgetting this one. It made me feel…icky…in a good way.