REVIEW: Under the Skin (2013)
Produced by: James Wilson, Nick Wechsler
Written by: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer (screenplay)
Edited by: Paul Watts
Cinematography by: Daniel Landin
Music by: Mica Levi
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson, Joe Szula, Kryštof Hádek, Paul Brannigan, Michael Moreland, Dave Acton, Jessica Mance
Based on the novel by Michel Faber
Under the Skin is one of those weird art films that apparently will perplex most, bore many, and leave only some at varying levels of admiration for the film. I don’t mean for that to sound snooty or anything, but it’s kind of true – this is a bizarre but arresting film that’s told through lots of strange and/or confusingly beautiful images and as little dialogue as possible without being a silent film, and the matter of fact way in which the film presents is unique premise will leave some put off if they’re not prepared or willing to accept what is happening and still let the film take them deeper into the world of “Laura,” an alien in a beautiful human woman’s body who patrols the streets of Scotland ensnaring men to take back to her lair. Yeah, I told you – it sounds pretty weird.
We first meet her first as a voice, seemingly practicing vocalizations as one would imagine an actor or singer would before a performance. When we first see her, she is nude and undressing a dead woman who was fetched for her from the bank of a river or lake by a man on a motorcycle. Next, she is wearing the woman’s clothes, dolling herself up at the mall, and going about in a van, hitting on any guy who is willing to help her out or who is themselves in need of a ride. Things really get weird after the seduction begins, however, when the men, lured by the increasingly naked woman in front of them, blindly wade into a liquid abyss from which they never return. And then, for “Laura,” it’s off to find the next victim.
She continues to do this for some time, and with each victim, we see more of what occurs to them after they make their way into the abyss. “Laura,” for the most part, is apparently emotionless about this, only showing signs of personality when she’s putting on an act. (Minor spoiler alert!) This all changes, however, when she has a chance encounter with a man with a deformity and empathy apparently begins to take hold in her. Suddenly the job isn’t so easy to do. (End spoiler!)
The second half of the film is something that’s tough to discuss without completely spoiling it, so I’ll refrain from talking about plot elements from this time onward and try to stick mostly to the abstracts. However, I will say that it’s clear from what transpires at this point is integral to understanding what the point of the film is – that is, it’s pretty obvious from this point on that the film is an allegorical story about the effects of human trafficking and prostitution on those who find themselves caught up in this horrific underground industry. As we observe the alien from this time onward, having previously seen her as a predator luring her prey, we grow to empathize with her and per plight, despite the actions she was an accomplice to. We watch as she tries to imitate humanity and fit in with normal people. We witness the mental and physical anguish her life has imprinted upon her, too, crippling her ability to feel any sense of enjoyment. We watch as she discovers her body as her own for the first time, rather than as a tool for others to use – scenes in which she is more physically and emotionally naked than at any other time in the film, with her at her most vulnerable than ever before, but also, for the first time, naked on her own terms. The haunting image of “Laura” the human image and the being within her looking at one another with seemingly equal parts sympathy and envy will likely stick with you for some time.
The film turns the spotlight on the audience, as well, by filming actual people on the street interacting with the girl, with Scarlett Johansson’s makeup and dark hair concealing her appearance just enough for many to not notice. Johansson spent a lot of time actually picking up guys in that van, with footage apparently collected from hidden cameras that filmed these encounters. (Apparently there was so much footage by the time the movie wrapped in 2012, director Jonathan Glazer spent the better part of the next year going through hours upon hours of footage to use in the final film, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2013.) When watching the reactions of some of the men eyeing her up with this knowledge in mind, it becomes a little clearer that the distinction between predator and prey is a little less obvious than what we may have thought.
Those who may dismiss Under the Skin for its bizarre premise are, I think, missing out on one of the best uses of a sci-fi trope – aliens preying upon humans in human form – to tell a deeply moving story with a message that’s far more resonant in regards to human experience than one might expect from a superficial summary of the story framework. Glazer’s adaptation of the Michel Faber novel, which I am led to believe is fairly loose one (I haven’t read it), is no less marvelous for any liberties it may have taken, and it’s told with such gorgeous cinematography, a mesmerizing atmospheric score, and a beautiful leading performance from Scarlett Johansson, who masterfully runs the gamut from playing an emotionless creature, a playful seductress, to a vulnerable victim of lifelong abuse while ensuring they all still feel like the same character. I’m uncertain as to why anyone would actually “boo” this fantastic film, as apparently happened at the Venice Film Festival. This is sci-fi cinema showing us exactly what it’s capable of.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5