– Summary –
Director : Jonathan Glazer
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson, Michael Moreland, Dave Acton, Jessica Mance.
Approx Running Time : 108 Minutes
Synopsis: An alien, in the form of a human woman, seduces men off the streets of Glasgow.
What we think : Haunting, weird, obscure, beautiful, boring; all words used to describe Under The Skin, and all of them entirely accurate. Casual cinema audiences will scoff at the merits of Jonathan Glazer’s film aside from a seeing the beautiful Johannson nude, while fans of art-house cinema will perhaps cheer this one to the rafters. In my opinion, dressing a film up like it’s some weird, mad, grungy sci-fi opus when it’s just a dude getting his rocks off on being able to shoot Scarlett Johannson without clothes on, is just cheating. This film is a bore.
Can I get those last two hours back, please?
I just…. struggled with this one. I’m not the most appreciative film critic going around, mainly because I prefer films with a structure and, well, a point, but I like to keep myself open to new experiences and ideas, of which Under the Skin represents perhaps the most brain-meltingly intriguing variety of “new experience”. That said, I really found Under The Skin tough going. Perhaps it’s my indoctrination into the Hollywood “normal”, appreciating films with some kind of structure, but when film-makers take away that structure, I often find myself hard-pushed to appreciate a film simply for its random, disparate visual cues. It’s fair to say that Under The Skin isn’t exactly a normal film, in terms of characters, story and a point, and although I definitely struggled with what I should have been feeling towards it, there’s absolutely nothing you’ve ever seen that’ll come close to its eerie beauty.
An alien being, wearing the skin of a human woman (Scarlett Johansson), travels around Glasgow, Scotland, picking up men in order to…. um…. absorb them? She is aided by another alien, who wears the skin of a motorcycle rider (Jeremy McWilliams), and it’s he who ensures that her mission (whatever that is) succeeds.
That’s probably the shortest synopsis for a film I’ve ever written. Under The Skin plays like a moving abstract art installation; you know, those weird pieces of “sculpture” or “junk” you see suspended above city plazas or attached to the walls of buildings, acclaimed by people who spend their time wearing scarves and sipping chai latte and detested by people who actually, you know, work for a living. As dismissive as I am of stuff I know nothing about seeing as how I believe abstraction is a worthless, mindless, infantile attempt to justify a lack of talent, Under The Skin’s delicious abstract-ness is at least evocative and mystifying even in spite of being utter rubbish. Yep, I’m calling it now, folks. Under The Skin – the only film I know of where Scarlett Johansson (resist the urge to say “ScarJo”, because apparently she hates that!) gets her cans out – is pretentious twaddle, a film so wrapped up in its own obscurity nobody can penetrate its characters, story, or concept.
The film’s ethereal beauty is derived from what I perceived as a naturalistic, almost upbraided sense of realism; the film was purportedly shot using a number of hidden cameras to capture real non-actors engaging with Johansson on the streets of Glasgow, and has a gritty, often hugely shadowy grime to it. This brings a sense of other-worldliness to the film’s science fiction aesthetic, although it would be a stretch to say this was a decisive creative choice instead of a natural progression for where the production filmed. Glasgow doesn’t rank highly on the World Most Beautiful Cities lists, so filming a movie there automatically grants it some sense of working-class dustiness. This low key style allows the stark contrast of Hollywood A-lister Johannson to really stand out amongst the Lesser Folk of the real world, and stand out she does. The fact that there’s footage of actual people, who were unaware of the film being made, conversing with Johannson and not recognizing her (goddam, she was in The Avengers, so it’s not like she’s a lesser known face!) probably speaks more to the ineptness of men to actually join the dots than it does towards Glazer’s cleverness at hiding her from sight.
While the film bends and flexes itself into contorted extremities just to make itself seem cool, Under The Skin cannot hide its lack of genuine emotional heft behind a facade of casual titillation or even often spooky “hard sci-fi elements” that pop up from time to time. Any film worth its admission price should at the very least draw us in as viewers, make us part of the experience of watching it, connect with us in a way you don’t get from reading a book or listening to a TED talk. Under The Skin doesn’t do that, although you’d hardly point the finger of blame at the cast, Scarlett and all. Scarlett aside, the amateur actors involved in this film bare their very souls, and that’s commendable. London local Adam Pearson, who was born with a congenital disease that has severely disfigured him [thanks to Saint Paul at WTF? for this link to more on Pearson’s experience] was cast in the film, as another contrast to the more “normal” looking gents Johannson’s alien character tries to hook up with, and it’s his moments with the famous actress which resound the most within this production. And almost all the men who share more than a moment with Johannson get their penis pushed up onto the big screen, for posterity I guess. And before you call my misogynistic, I dare you to consider calling a penis, one of the most offensively hideous pieces of human anatomy, beautiful by comparison to a naked Scarlett Johannson.
The whole film is set up as some kind of “beauty is only skin deep” allegory (I think), for a final sequence with Johannson’s character tearing off her “human suit” is particularly cathartic, in light of the experiences throughout the movie to that point. Each of the men she encounters are sucked into a black goop on the floor, where they then have their insides evaporated, leaving only the skin – methinks this film is most appropriately titled, at the very least. Even though its trying to say something, Under The Skin actually delivers very little in terms of coherent intellectual dialogue, leaving it up to the viewer to determine what on Earth the whole thing was about. Which is fine, I guess, but one should really have more than a naked Scarlett and plenty of Scottish penises to contend with in order to form a valid opinion. Frankly, it’s all too opaque to really let the audience in.
Oh, Under The Skin flirted with me a little, lifted its skirt up a tad just so I could see the panty-line, but, like German pornography, in the end it left me cold, flat and devoid of interest. Johannson is good, I guess, although she’s asked to do little other than pout, stare into the middle distance, drive around, cavort with mild nudity and in the end just display sorrow that it was all for naught. As a film experience I found it dispiriting, generally unlikeable and utterly contemptuous of the viewer with its baffling sequential ruination of humanity, and its equally deadpan effluvium of visual wankery. “Serious” critics will probably say it’s the best film of the year, but they’d be wrong. Under The Skin is shit wrapped in the allure of Scarlett’s heaving bosoms. It’s still just shit, though.