Under The Skin (2014)

Under The Skin (2014)

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What a peculiar coat. And pout.
What a peculiar coat. And pout.

Twitter Plot Summary: An alien, disguised as Scarlett Johansson, drives around Scotland kidnapping young men.

Five Point Summary:

1. Driving around in a van, picking up men.
2. The beach scene. Horrifically disconnected.
3. Perhaps a bit too on the nose with that guy.
4. Aren’t any of these men concerned about the big black empty room?
5. So what’s with those biker dudes?

Do you remember the first time you watched 2001: A Space Odyssey? If you haven’t, go away and watch it before you carry on reading. Done? Now, that feeling there, the one of bafflement mixed with awe and yet more bafflement, is what I felt after seeing Under The Skin, the Jonathan Glazer film set in Scotland and starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress preying on single men or those unlikely to be missed if they were to disappear. Driving around Scotland in her white van, dressed in a ridiculously OTT fur coat and sporting a black bob hair cut, it’s a surreal image to say the least.

Johansson is perhaps a surprising choice for this role, but ultimately she’s perfect because she’s exactly the sort of person you would expect to stand out in such a situation. Yet strangely she blends right in with the locals despite her choice of attire – barely anyone bats an eyelid at her. This is interesting to note because the majority of crowd scenes, so we’re told, were shot with hidden cameras so the reactions of those around her are genuine. There’s a further sense of unease as you’re never quite sure if you’re watching her interact with an actor or a genuine passer-by, which has the potential to take you out of the story. Thankfully the divide between acting and the natural delivery of speech is a thin one, so it doesn’t really affect your enjoyment.

The sound design is fantastic – the music is designed to jar with our usual expectations by featuring prominent screeching strings, and the few moments of absolute silence are broken by sudden blasts of percussion – it’s disconcerting and is yet another element that adds to the sense of alienation and otherworldliness. Visuals too, when we’re not looking at the stunning Scottish countryside, are interesting to say the least. A number of effects sequences are as equally stunning for their simplicity as well as their poetic qualities. I could wax lyrical about these elements for days on end, but for the sake of brevity I won’t.

It’s intriguing to note that the alien only prays upon men, and usually men within a specific age bracket. Despite numerous shots of women going about their business, it’s the men that the alien goes for. It may have something to do with her being in the form of Scarlett Johansson, of course, but it’s one of many questions raised about the alien’s reason for being on Earth in the first place, and is similarly one of many that does not get answered – at least not directly. There are also a number of scenes that are truly indicative of the alien’s lack of knowledge of Earth – the beach scene in particular is one that other reviewers have picked up on and I’m in agreement that it’s a powerful moment, perfectly underplayed and void of human emotion.

Unglamorous, rainy Scotland. Great stuff.
Unglamorous, rainy Scotland. Great stuff.

It seems recently that a lot of the best dramatic work comes from films that have almost no dialogue, and Under The Skin is no exception. The story is primarily told through actions, facial expressions and a creative use of imagery. Johansson in particular puts in a stand out performance for the moments where she slowly starts to get a grip on human emotion, as if being in that human skin and interacting with all of these men is starting to wear off on her. By comparison, her similarly alien biker colleagues are disconnected from it – another aspect of the story that is not explained in any great detail, nor is it absolutely necessary. There are various scenes of nudity throughout – feminists will be pleased to note that it’s not all Scarlett Johansson – most of the men she lures back to her grotty house are “on display” as it were. And for everybody else – yes, she does appear in the nip. In terms of nudity I think everybody’s a winner in this case.

Much like after watching 2001 for the first time (and, indeed, the second), I was left with a number of questions after departing the cinema. I get the impression that I’ll be pondering over this one for quite some time. Unlike 2001 (when I get round to reviewing it anyway), I can’t give Under The Skin a perfect score because there are a few moments where the pace decreases and nothing of note really takes place – it starts to circle round and repeat earlier beats. Other than those brief lulls, however, it’s perhaps on par to become one of my top 10 films of the year. For anyone planning on seeing the film after reading this review, I would advise strongly that if you are not a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey or oblique, low budget science fiction concept films, then you’d be better off giving it a miss. It’s certainly going to be a film to split critics and viewers down the middle in terms of loving/hating it, and I just happen to fall on the “love” side of the fence. Ultimately you have to make your own mind up, but if you enjoy trying to unravel the plot and prefer films that don’t spoon feed you at every turn, then you’ll probably love it too.

Score: 4.5/5

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