CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hádek, Michael Moreland, Scott Dymond
RUNNING TIME: 107 mins
BASICALLY…: An alien takes on the form of a young woman (Johansson) and drives around Scotland in a van, picking up unsuspecting men to lure and seduce with sinister purposes…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Jonathan Glazer should be used to polarising reactions from various critics by now. After his acclaimed directorial debut with 2001’s Sexy Beast, he followed up with 2004’s controversial thriller Birth which featured scenes that caused many to accuse the film of paedophilia – for instance, Nicole Kidman is shown to kiss a young boy on the lips at one point – which in turn created a tight split in critical consensus.
Flash forward nine years later, when Glazer debuts at various film festivals his third film – and first since Birth – the haunting sci-fi Under The Skin. Once again, a tight split in opinion was established. Some loved it and hailed Glazer as a successor to Stanley Kubrick, others hated it to a point where booing has been reported at the end of screenings.
The opinion of this reviewer, however, incorporates both sides of the argument. But while we definitely don’t hate this movie – after all, there is a great deal to admire about it – there also isn’t much to rectify it as a modern masterpiece either. So, it’s Birth all over again.
Even with that said, the things that don’t register aren’t loathsome and don’t drag the film down by any means. However, they prove to be troublesome enough to prevent one from absolutely adoring this film. The overall structure, for instance, is extremely loose and flimsy with no concrete plot or narrative arc to give it legs. All the film is, in a nutshell, is an unrecognisable Scarlett Johansson (excellent, by the way; her quiet doe-eyed reactions and sinister expressions more than make up for its heavy lack of dialogue) driving around Scotland in a van picking up random men for creepy alien purposes. It’s a structure you could fit onto a barroom napkin.
There are other major devices that are introduced and maintain a strong presence but are never fully realised. A strange “side-plot” follows a mysterious motorcyclist who seems to be in cahoots somehow with Johansson’s nameless alien. It’s strongly implied that he is another walking ET, but the film continues to establish him as some sort of threat even when there’s no pay-off by film’s end. Later in the film, Johansson takes up a residence with a man with whom she slowly discovers true sexual passion but a few scenes later he’s gone, never to be seen or heard from again. The ending is also hard to swallow, and threatens to turn into unintentionally funny territory with the decision of a minor character in what must be the most Scottish way of dealing with strange things. It’s understandable why these inconsistencies with the film’s structure would irritate its harshest critics, and most of them are not unwarranted.
But the stuff that works in this film gives much-needed weight to the other side to create a fully-balanced experience. For instance, Daniel Landin’s extremely atmospheric cinematography covers a wide range of images from the misty roads in the Highlands, to the guerrilla-style hidden cameras in the van which allows Johansson – in character – to improvise interactions with real and unsuspecting extras, to the more surreal images such as an abstract display of circles that eventually form an eye at the very start. Each shot is mesmerising, and credit must be given to Landin for making almost everything right up to the final shot of the movie look absolutely divine.
The ambiguity, despite notable inconsistencies, also allows us to extend our suspension of disbelief further than the average sci-fi. Not knowing what the real motivations of Johansson’s alien are makes things more intense, establishing a genuinely uneasy feel with whatever the character decides to do next. In many ways, Under The Skin does exactly what the title suggests, even if it doesn’t wholly succeed in getting there.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Under The Skin displays much to admire – from Scarlett Johansson’s quietly affective lead performance to Daniel Landin’s exceptional cinematography – but also an equal amount to criticise, mainly with its unfocused narrative. It’s patchy, but an interesting kind of patchy.