If you’ve seen the trailer, you know how Under the Skin starts. The silhouette of a thick grey-black ring graces the frame, with its edges glowing with the same teal luminance of Tron. A lustrous light that moments before surged from a faint glimmer into a harshly bright light illuminates the back of the ring. As an abstract black object enters the ring, the image transitions into a white object. It’s seemingly the outside view of the objects from the previous image. The black orb-like object continues to push forward, until, suddenly, it becomes a beautiful human eye. This is the eye of Scarlett Johansson playing an alien. These starting images summarize the title, as many of the images in the film stand to do. See, the film literally begins under the skin. This is a fitting opening of the movie for a few reasons, and not just because its sets up the themes director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer explores throughout the film. The opening minutes also establish Skin’s overall aesthetic, combining visually dazzling special effects with naturalism. More important, though, is that just as it establishes the title with odd literalness, the film as a whole is procedurally literal. Under the Skin wears its disturbed alien heart on its intergalactic sleeve.
Defining the story proves to be a feat of mental and linguistic acrobatics, since so much of the plot is merely a key to unlock the aesthetic and artistic ambitions of Glazer’s ideas, but I’ll give it a go. Under the Skin is an adaptation of Michel Faber’s well received novel of the same name. An alien steals the form of a stunningly beautiful woman who, by no coincidence, I’m sure, has the under-emoting disposition and black-as-night hair as a woman on the way to a Goth nightclub. Johansson’s alien embodies the film’s atmosphere- eerie, detached, and full of gloom. It’s hypnotic. She plays the extraterrestrial cousin to Odysseus’ Sirens, driving around Scotland in a white van convincing men to return with her to her home. I’ll say it now: she’s fantastic in the role, continuing her streak after great performances in Don Jon and Her. They’re never heard from again, and although we see what she does with them, we can never be sure what their fate is. The film doesn’t answer this question, and as Glazer said during a Q&A after the screening, it’s a situation where the book’s answer was less interesting than the question. There’s a man on a motorcycle who’s also an alien and watches over our main character, but what role he has beyond that is unclear. For as matter of fact the film can be with its characters and trippy scenes, the most basic of narrative devices, exposition, is so opaque that half of this plot summary is never directly stated, explained, or even hinted at. If in a year’s time this winds up on Netflix, and I happened to flip it on by chance having never heard of it, Under the Skin would have been a dreadfully maddening experience for this reason.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that over the course of the film, she begins to question her own humanity, or lack of it, and begins to experiment with what it means to be a human. This is without a doubt the film’s weakest area. It’s obvious, tired, and what we’ve seen by countless other films, book, and TV shows at this point. It’s 2014. You have to try harder. If I were feeling harsh, I’d compare it to a mediocre Doctor Who episode with high-art ambitions.
It has an impressive budget of seven million dollars, and that allowed Glazer to achieve stunning visuals I frankly wish the film had a lot more of. The alien lair has the zeal of an art installation fitting for a spot at the MET, wavering between the avant-garde of the early 1900s and abstract expressionism of the 1950s. Johansson’s alien lures them into an alien realm of pitch black formlessness with carefully manufactured lighting to illuminate the objects within the room without brightening the space entirely. An awful lot of the running time is made up of characters lumbering from place to place and engaging in repetitive tasks. The mesmeric atmospherics, aided tremendously by the sound design that’s part love letter to all things David Lynch and part ode to Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, never lets the film become boring, but it almost is. You’ve got the mainstream audience alienated, and even the crowd that brags about seeing all of Godard’s films, even his post-60s work, would be begging to return to these stunning alien scenes instead of watching someone walk in a forest for fifteen minutes.
That’s not to say the cinematography is bland. Far from it. Other than the abstract alien sequences, there’s a raw realism to the image that heightens the disconnect between our protagonist and the people she hunts. To prepare for the possibility the film didn’t have enough contrived metaphors, Glazer gave her a fur coat. Like she’s an animal. On the prowl. The film effectively detaches her, and thus the audience, from surroundings most people, including me, would enjoy being in. From her point of view, we look at humans with suspicion and remoteness, and we adopt her psychology. This is seen most in a horrifying early scene where she witnesses the deaths of a husband and wife while looking for another catch. It’s a nice effect not many filmmakers can master, and for the film’s first half when these scenes take place, Glazer proves he has.
What I’ve neglected to mention is that a huge portion of the scenes where Johansson’s alien picks up lustful men weren’t just improvised and unscripted, but the actors on screen aren’t actors at all. They were regular, random guys wandering the streets of Scotland that the ominous white van happened to pull up beside. After (unknowingly) filming their scene, they had to sign a waiver to let them appear in the movie. Some of these scenes have real actors, but most don’t, and distinguishing between the two is impossible. This is only one of the reasons Under the Skin is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and although some might say this tactic was done to heighten a sense of naturalism in the film, it seems just as likely Glazer is making a bold statement on the nature of art as a whole. In the Q&A, Glazer constantly made the distinction between what parts of the film were ‘contrived’ (that he wrote and staged) and what parts weren’t. He hoped the two coalesced into a unified style. A possible interpretation of Under the Skin is that it isn’t concerned with what it means to be a human, and instead what it means to be a film.
I walked out of the screening with a strong sense of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece Solaris on my mind in how both this film and Under the Skin use the ‘device’ of a non-human human to reflect on the nature of man. I was disappointed, since if this were the case, Under the Skin adds nothing to a well-worn discussion led by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and Blade Runner. That would make Under the Skin an unfortunate and tedious case in style over substance. Although one of the film’s best scenes dramatizes this thematic point with expert sensitivity, when she picks up a disfigured man who’s as much an outsider of society as she is. It’s also worth mentioning how clever of an idea it was that she seems to follow a script to lure men into her abode, not just words, but when to laugh, smile, and seem happy. Is this so different from what we do when trying to connect with someone? But upon reflection I realized it has just as much in common with a different Tarkovsky film: The Mirror. The Mirror is one of the great self-reflexive texts in movie history, meaning it constantly questions its own status as a work of art. It’s partly autobiographical and partly fiction, and the line between where real life ends and ‘art’ begins are blurred. Under the Skin suggests a similar design, in which case the film’s meditation on the essence of being a human is a metaphor for the nature of art, rather than the other way around. I doubt this is wholly what was intended, but does it matter? His dutiful observance to his singular vision is laudable, even when you’re wondering how wide he can see.