"Under The Skin” seems like a film that, as a critic, I’m really supposed to like. It is slow and ponderous, inscrutable and complicated the way some art is meant to be, and features a story that unwinds without spoon-fed explanations.
It’s the type of film that appeals to film connoisseurs, who don’t mind being bored if it’s for a greater purpose. I understand all these things and have seen many a film that fits into this category.
And yet, for some reason, I failed to connect with “Under the Skin” on any real level. There are parts meant to unnerve, to prick at the edges of what it means to human, to rumble the stomach and wrack the mind. To a certain degree, I think I know what the director was intending.
However, the film failed to elicit any sort of emotion. I didn’t feel much of anything as it progressed. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the way music and sound were used in crafting the scenes. The bleak beauty of the Scottish landscape combined with the otherworldly circumstances of the plot kept me interested to a point, but ultimately the film didn’t provoke its intended reaction in me. It didn’t provoke much of a reaction at all.
“Under the Skin” is loosely based on the 2000 science-fiction novel of the same name by Michel Faber. In the novel, an alien disguised as a beautiful woman seduces unsuspecting men in order to harvest their meat for consumption on her home world. “Under the Skin” also features a beautiful disguised alien (Scarlett Johansson). but her motivations for seducing the men are left to the imagination of the audience. As I mentioned, there is no real explanation for anything. The film exists through small snippets of conversations and the silent stares of the film’s star.
Good movies don’t always require much in the way dialogue, as evidenced by films like “All is Lost”—in fact, great stories can be told very simply. Much of the dialogue in “Under the Skin” is secondary to the action, mumbled and softly spoken.
The quiet is meant to make the tone of the film that much more chilling. Adding to this is the inclusion of Scottish residents, most of whom are non-actors, using their own genuine nervousness at being in the presence of someone as stunning as Johansson to heighten the tension, casting a note of realism into the film.
As a critic, I see the logic behind this decision: Only a man confronted with the possibility of sex with such an enchanting beauty would ignore the weirdness of the situation and continue into an abandoned house with dimensions that might confuse a Time Lord. Men will ignore a lot of warning signs for perfection.
And yet, as much as the filmmaker’s decisions are consistent with the story, I still didn’t find myself caring. It was only due to my slight curiosity at the true nature of the predator that I was able to sustain my interest.
Much praise has been heaped upon Johansson for her performance in the film. It was certainly adequate for the story, but as far as being exceptional, the role only called for her to remain expressionless and detached.
There are brief hints of humanity, betraying the minor programming necessary to coax men into the windowless white van used to troll the highways of Scotland, but it is the physical aspects of the creature that do most of the heavy lifting.
Perhaps it is harder to be blank than human. An actor would need to answer that question. But this is the second film I’ve seen with Johansson starring as a nonhuman character that slowly becomes curious about the world they are inhabiting.
Her performance in “Her” seemed much more nuanced and powerful, despite the actress not having a physical presence in the film. The films are very different in tone, of course, one allowing for a larger range of expression. “Under the Skin” is darker as well. But still, I felt that Johansson needed more to do that just stare straight ahead.
Tonally, “Under the Skin” reminded me quite a bit of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.” It requires the same amount of thought on the part of the viewer. The audience needs to pay careful attention to the subtleties included by the director, and even then meaning is hard to decipher.
As to what the filmmaker intended, I have no idea. I can speculate on his intentions, but without repeated viewings the point remains enigmatic. But I have no interest in repeating the experience.
This is only the third full-length feature by Jonathan Glazer, the first being “Sexy Beast,” and “Under the Skin” was in production for nearly 10 years. Obviously, there is no correct length of time for a work of art, but the longer an artist spends on a work, the more likely they are to fall into it so completely that it makes sense only to them.
“Under the Skin” may have needed the distillation of an outside opinion to be truly effective.