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Non-Review Review: Under the Skin

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Under the Skin exists as a gigantic flash backwards to the atmospheric and moody science-fiction horrors of the seventies. Despite a verbal reference to 2014 and some quick glimpses of posters for movies released in 2012, director Jonathan Glazer has constructed the movie as a throwback. Indeed, Under the Skin feels very much like an even lower key spiritual successor to Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, except this time it’s the Scarlett Johansson who fell to Scotland.

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There isn’t much by the way of dialogue in Under the Skin. Most of the characters aside from the alien seductress speak in thick Scottish accents – making it quite difficult to decipher what they are saying. Still, Glazer makes it quite clear that it doesn’t really matter. Under the Skin is a movie driven by visuals and imagery more than dialogue or exposition. We never find out what Scarlett Johansson’s alien is doing in Scotland.

Is it a beachhead for an extraterrestrial invasion? Is it scientific investigation and research? Is this simply outer space farming? It’s very hard to deduce the finer points of what is going on, and what the big picture might be. All we know is that the lead alien is seducing single lonely men inside her white transit van, taking them to secluded hiding spots and leading them into a surreal and otherworldly environment.

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It’s worth noting the none of the men seem perturbed by the fact that they’ve stepped from the doorway of a dingy-looking cottage into what looks like a set for a sinister perfume commercial. Is there some alien voodoo at work here? Are the men just so horny in their pursuit of the sexy alien that they don’t notice they are slowly sinking into a pool of… something? Even when fully immersed, nobody really seems too bothered – just sort of docile and vaguely worried.

All of which is a way of making the point that Under the Skin is not a film too interested in answers or reasons. It is more preoccupied with mood and ambiguity. Glazer is consciously channelling seventies science-fiction here. Under the Skin looks and feels like a much older film than it actually is. The special effects are state of the art, but Glazer cleverly uses them in a way that evokes the cinema of yesteryear.

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So we get lots of dissolves and fades, with characters superimposed over establishing shots or even abstract special effects. Those special effects are typically shot in sharp black-and-white or in decidedly retro colours – reds and oranges are used to depict actions that might be cellular or might simply be metaphorical. Although these are staged beautifully and atmospherically, Glazer frames them all to create the impression that this could have been done in the seventies.

As a piece of mood, it is positively triumphant. Some of the stronger sequences in the film are the extended periods where no dialogue occurs. In particular, an early sequence on an eerie Scottish beach might be the most effective in the entire film, conveying the otherworldliness of our lead character without any recourse to special effects or CGI or gratuitous exposition. It’s a beautifully atmospheric piece of work, and it demonstrates why Glazer might adopt an approach like that to a film like this.

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Similarly, Scarlett Johansson conveys an ethereality as the lead character. The performance is beautiful and uncanny – there are moments when the creature falls so easily into practised dialogue that one might confuse her for a human being, but Johansson makes sure these moments are fleeting – it’s always clear that there’s something not quite right about this beautiful creature stalking Scotland in her mysterious white van.

The Scottish setting is absolutely inspired, the thick local brogue making it all seem a little bit alien. The existential horror of the basic premise is only heightened by the fact that this is unfolding in the middle of nowhere, globally speaking. Meeting a Czech on a beach, the lead alien asks, “Why Scotland?” He replies, “Because it is nowhere.” One imagines the aliens feel the same way – this isn’t an invasion built around centres of world power or military infra-structure or iconic buildings and monuments. This is good old seventies “it could be happening all around you and you’d have no idea!” paranoia at play.

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Similarly, there’s something decidedly unsettling about an alien invasion based on sex. Not in the trashy way that Species was, but in a more unsettling “we found a weakness, let’s exploit it” manner. Alien invasion movies have repeatedly suggested that humans are much more adept at violence than anything that might be waiting for us out in the cosmos. Invasions by force are fun to watch, but almost always doomed to fail.

Invasion by sex? That’s probably not something humanity is quite ready to deal with – given society’s (and culture’s) own discomfort with issues around sex. It is something that is never really talked about, something that causes people to flinch and get uncomfortable. It is, after all, quite telling that the sexual content of Under the Skin will get it rated much higher than a more generic violence-filled invasion film like Independence Day. It makes the movie’s point quite well.

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Given the obvious influence of classic horror on the movie, the film plays quite astutely with traditional horror movie attitudes towards sex and sexuality. In most science-fiction and horror films, the female characters seem more likely to be punished for being sexually active – there’s a rather creepy conservative subtext to the genre, one which frequently treats sexually active women as easy targets. Under the Skin shrewdly reverses this, giving us a female character preying on sexually active men. It’s a delightful inversion.

That said, there are problems. Given the movie’s decision to favour mood over exposition, the script adopts a number of narrative shortcuts that feel lazy at best and misguided at worst. At one point, after emotionlessly leading quite a few men to their deaths, the alien picks up a young man with some facial disfiguration. That thread plays out precisely as you imagine it might, which is a very expedient way of getting the story to where it needs to be.

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This has the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like the movie defines the character by his disability – his abduction and murder would somehow be less tragic (and easier to swallow) if he didn’t have the facial disfigurement. This feels like a rather unfortunate hold over of the movie’s seventies roots – reflecting some of the more common clichés and politically incorrect attitudes of the time. It’s a narrative short cut, but it still feels a little strange.

There’s also the inevitability of the final scene. Again, it’s a case of the movie taking the path of least resistance in order to get where it needs to go. In order to reach that final scene, the movie needs an exciting incident – and, given the movie’s themes and subtexts, that incident feels very predictable and more than a little crass. Again, this is a hold over from Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, just making the inevitable “traveller learns that humans are not good people” revelation feel a little bit trite.

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These are minor complaints. For most of Under the Skin‘s runtime, it’s an effective throwback to a very old-school approach to science-fiction. The only problem is that it feels a little bit too old-school.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

4 Responses

  1. Thank you. I like the way you are critical to a critically made film and let slide these things in a more mass marketed kind of film. You expect more from more serious filmmakers.

    • Yep.

      Although I would argue that I try to judge a film as it is produced – I try to judge a film as it presents itself to me, if that makes sense. The Lego Movie is not the height of serious movie-making, but it wants to be a fun family film. It mostly succeeds on those terms. Transformers wants to be big dumb fun, and it mostly fails on those terms. Under the Skin wants to be moody and atmospheric and provocative, and it succeeds at a lot of that, but not all of it.

  2. The reviewer seems to lack moral compass. The beach scene shows the abuse of a small child by the filmmaker. Also, the different manner that a young man with severe facial disfigurement was targeted, I think fairly opens one’s heart more than to the other victims — though I did not see this pint in the movie itself.

    • That’s a bit harsh, Chris. I don’t think that any abuse of any small child was conducted on the set of Under the Skin by any filmmaker. I think there are regulations and such in place to prevent such a thing.

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