Under The Skin review

Review Ryan Lambie 13 Mar 2014 - 06:32

Scarlett Johansson stars in Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin - and it's a difficult yet unforgettable sci-fi art film, Ryan writes...

Ambiguous from the first shot to the last, Under The Skin is both an arthouse mood piece and a flesh-crawlingly uneasy indie science fiction film. Director Jonathan Glazer's movie is the latest in a rarefied subgenre: the deadly female alien invader, as previously seen in such films as Devil Girl From Mars (Glazer’s film even sharing that 1954 curio's Scottish setting), Tobe Hooper’s oddball Lifeforce and Roger Donaldson's schlocky Species.

Yet while Under The Skin shares certain elements with those earlier films, it’s far more intimate, disturbing and powerful than all of them put together. Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, an almost silent femme fatale who roams the streets of Glasgow picking up men and kidnapping them for her own obscure and deadly ends.

What does Laura need these young men for? Who's the heavily-built man on a motorbike who rides around in her wake? The film provides clues, but leaves us to draw our own conclusions - unlike Michael Faber's source novel, Laura's objectives are never made explicit.

What is plain is just how unsettling Johansson’s scenes of quiet seduction are. It’s said that some of the men who clamber into Laura’s Ford Transit van aren’t actors, but ordinary members of the public who were filmed in secret and only informed of their involvement in a movie later on, which explains why the dialogue seems so natural and strangely voyeuristic.

These scenes of are undoubtedly powerful because they’re so unusual. We’ve become conditioned to expect women to be the victims - or at least to be objects of desire - in movies. It’s extremely rare to see this situation reversed, where it’s the men who are presented as lacking in control, or helpless, or unaware of what’s about to happen to them. One or two sequences provide glimpses of the surreal fate that awaits Laura's victims, and they're almost breathtaking in their sheer weirdness.

Johansson, clad in a gigantic fur coat and heavy red lipstick, moves through the film like a wraith, observing and speaking only when she has to. In one horrifying and unforgettable scene, she watches a tragedy unfold with the same detachment as an earlier moment where she watched an ant march across her fingertips. It’s only later that her character begins to display even the scarcest flicker of humanity: a drop of blood on her hand leaves her apparently shaken, as does a glimpse of herself in a mirror. Could it be that her repeated contact with human beings have somehow left a bit of them under her skin, too?

The themes and meaning of Glazer’s film can be thought about and discussed at length, and certainly deserve to be. The obvious thing to take from Under The Skin is that it's about the fleshy carnality of being a human in the modern age. Long stretches of the film take place against a depressingly familiar British backdrop of chain stores - of H Samuel and Next and Boots, of family pubs offering two breakfasts for £10 - the kind of places you can find in any generic city up and down the country. It touches on the anonymity of modern living, of how we judge one another superficially, by appearances, without knowing or particularly caring what dark reservoirs of emotion - or worse, absence of emotion - might lie beneath.

Glazer, whose previous films include Sexy Beast and Birth, is on very different territory here, channelling the high-contrast minimalism of George Lucas’ debut feature THX 1138, the otherworldliness of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the icy sexuality of David Cronenberg’s Crash.

It's a sci-fi film refreshingly light on genre trappings - though its handful of special effects are quite stunning. What's most interesting is the way Glazer deals with adult themes without a hint of titillation - the scenes of nudity and sex have the sterile feeling of a scientific study about them, as though we're viewing everything on a slide through the lens of a microscope. The whole film is shot from Laura's perspective: an alien's-eye view of a strange species and their curious divisions between sexes.

Under The Skin is a difficult, incredibly disturbing film from beginning to end, but that’s why it’s also a brilliant one. Some cinemagoers will almost certainly find its lack of a relatable protagonist, or an obvious story structure, or even character motivations frustrating, and in many ways, Glazer's film's like Shane Carruth's similarly obscure Upstream Color. But movies should show us new things, or take us to strange places we're reluctant to visit, and Under The Skin does exactly this. It feels like something from a nightmare; a horrifying portrait of the id.

Under The Skin is out in UK cinemas on the 14th March.

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Disqus - noscript

Been fascinated by this right up until the comparison with Upstream Colour, which was the dullest waste of time ever. Maybe I won't go see it after all.

Read the book last month after becoming intrigued by the movie. I have to say, if the film is staying ambiguous about the Aliens motives then that's a good thing. There are things described in that book that no man needs to see on screen......

Agreed, man that film was a load of pretentious nonsense if ever if seen it, I was really looking forward to it as well after Primer (which I became a little bit obsessed with, much to my girlfriends annoyance).
Anyway, Under the Skin has my interest, I'll give it a whirl.

I will definitely give this a go.

Always nice to see a film trying something a bit different and not follow the usual structure.

I think that's why I liked Only God Forgives so much. It's not that it was a great film or anything, I just respect directors who like to mix it up a bit!

I'm looking forward to watching this, although I don't think it's something that needs to be seen on the big screen in order to be fully appreciated, and it's going to struggle to make an impression with the sugar & action junkies that are more widely courted in the Omniplex audience. That said, I am also happy to see a huge Hollywood starlet get involved in an arthouse type of film. I hope it will draw in enough people and show them that the cinema isn't all about big bangs and spandex :-)

Oh good. I thought there was something wrong with me for just not getting that movie - based on the goodness of Primer. I'm glad I'm not the only one!

Is it worth reading. I've been in a good mood to dive into some horror lately?

I'm going to see this in the Edinburgh Cameo tomorrow.

It's a quick read. You could polish it off in one or two nights , so you're not looking at a massive time investment. The book itself is well written and contains some interesting ideas and questions on the nature of humanity. From a horror perspective it describes scenes and images that will live with you for a long time after you finish.

It sounds good. I'll give it go. Cheers.

Currently half way through the novel by Michael Faber ...It's an excellent read.

I am looking forward
to seeing the film when it opens

DoG in good review shocker!!

It's a shame it's got a terrible release. Odeon and Cineworld have a grand total of 8 screens dedicated to it nationwide. Disgraceful!

Gets 5* in The Telegraph followed by a Disqus board of people saying how bad it is, before mentioning that they haven't actually seen it!

Loved it, certain to be in my top five films of the year if not number 1. I got completely pulled in. I demand a decent amount of dvd extras upon release.

The feeling I got from the "apartment" scenes was an expression of how love/desire/intimacy will lead you, but be just out of reach. The rhythmic pursuit in these scenes were hypnotizing to both the real life audience and the "victims" in this film. The illustration of being suspended naked in emptiness and then that "POP" of the hollowed man whose skin then swirls like the skin of a snake or a dead balloon, appeared as a terrifying release from a motionless torment. This, in my opinion, is a connotation to an emotionally deflating relationship paired with a terrifying conclusion and is an understandably sympathetic depiction of the (again) "victims" of apathetic lovers. I genuinely admire the scene where she is with the man whose is physically deformed with "beautiful hands" and she asks, "When is the last time you touched someone." This film in my eyes is a perfect model of less is more and Under the Skin is absolutely brimming with imagination that lasts with you. Thank you.

It absolutely is a must see in a theater in order to appreciate this film in it's entirety.

Unfortunately, I didn't get the opportunity, as the nearest cinema to show this was over 50 miles away. So I guess I'll have to wait for the DVD release :-/

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