[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Under the Skin opens today in limited release.]
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is strange, visually absorbing, cerebral, and rarely compelling. The film attempts to obscure its fairly simple story and subtext in order to imply depth, and while it may take a while to figure out the movie’s motives, that’s due to the lethargic pacing rather than the complexities of the themes. Thankfully, there’s no pretentiousness as Glazer clearly knows what he’s going for, and has made some admittedly clever moves to get there. Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly fascinating beneath the surface.
A mysterious motorcyclist finds an unconscious woman (Scarlett Johansson) on the side of the road. An alien then takes the form of the woman’s body, and proceeds to drive around Scotland looking to pick up men (played mostly by non-professional actors), whom she lures to a completely dark location, tempts them to strip naked with the promise of sex, and then the man sinks into a dark abyss. Eventually, the alien begins to feel a connection to humanity and hesitation about what she’s doing to these human males.
By virtue of its obfuscation and abstract imagery, Under the Skin invites many interpretations, but I feel that layering on complex theories would be giving the picture too much credit. Earlier this year, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color also provided a mind-bending trip, but whereas Carruth’s picture had plenty of moving parts to indicate a more complicated (and for some, more rewarding) reading, Under the Skin comes off like posturing. Both movies can be alluring in their oddness and distinct visual style, but Under the Skin seems like a flashy coating. One could argue its skin-deep nature is intentional, but then Glazer’s film is a success no matter what. Either it wins by being ironically shallow, or it’s authentically deep and complex.
I don’t see its shallowness as ironic as much as the film believes it’s cleverer than it actually is. Once you push past the seductive visuals and irritatingly ominous score, you have a story about seeing humans as more than bags of meat, but providing a comment on human sexuality based on the tale of the sirens. At the outset, the alien can only see relationships as skin deep. Glazer provides plenty of shots of crowds and crowd noise as humanity is shown as creatures in a habitat. We’re indistinct to the alien. Eventually, the alien starts seeing the individual, both at his best and his worst.
Glazer’s smartest move is casting Johansson against non-professional actors. The role isn’t a showcase for her acting talent as much as it’s comment on how she’s desired by men the world over. She’s a good actress, but I would be willing to bet that most heterosexual men who like her are drawn to her looks before her acting ability. She’s the magazine spread before she’s the award-winning actress. Under the Skin will probably be known as “the movie where Johansson gets naked” (or at least her body double gets naked; it’s difficult to tell). I hope audiences will at least appreciate the inspired decision to have her be an actress literally and figuratively with this role.
Attraction based solely on physical characteristics drains people of their humanity. The alien doesn’t have a clear goal or a mission because Under the Skin is thematically driven, and the theme isn’t particularly rewarding. The movie never feels like it’s preaching, but it’s also laboring to reach a simple conclusion. Under the Skin isn’t shallow, but there’s still not much to see when we peel back its gorgeous surface.