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It’s actually rather rare I get to do a movie so recent for Hubrisween, though that’s likely more a matter of personal taste than actual happenstance. The fact that I’m calling a two year-old movie “recent” is telling, some people are likely thinking.
Then, perhaps Under the Skin isn’t of such recent vintage after all – it’s said it took director Jonathan Glazer ten years to get it made. And then, once it was made, nobody seemed to like it. Dipping a toe into User Reviews and message boards is a whole lot like falling into a Gamer Gate discussion or something equally rancid. There are people who like this movie, but they’re not the ones who are driven to spout off about it; they’re the ones in the corner pondering and staring into space.
Scarlett Johansson is The Female (watch the extras and you’ll find out the crew named her Laura). The Female is some sort of alien being imitating a human woman. Driving about chilly Glasgow in a van, she picks up men, takes them to a deserted house for some sex, but instead they find themselves in some sideways dimension where they are consumed.
That is a B-movie concept right there, and you can be sure that Fred Olen Ray has used it at least once or twice; what is different here is the way in which the story is told. Under the Skin has maybe 100 lines of dialogue (if that many) in its hour and forty-eight minutes. This is purely visual storytelling, using some astonishingly sneaky technology. The reason the van the Female uses for stalking is so large is because it has eight cameras concealed in it and a recording studio in the back. The Female’s interactions with men is quite real, many of them not realizing they were in a movie until Glazer told them.
The Female is quite good at mimicry, it seems, but her observation of and traveling among humans begins to wear upon her, to infect her. Upon the seduction of a man afflicted with neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson, and that ain’t makeup), she has a most un-alien crisis of conscience, frees him from the death dimension, and goes on her own voyage of self-discovery, ditching the van and wandering at random. She will find that humans are capable of great kindness. She will also find that some humans are just as capable of predation as she, perhaps even moreso.
It’s feels hard to judge Johansson’s performance here, which is why I tend to think it’s great. The bits with human interaction stand so starkly against the Alien parts – unreadable, unknowable. The hardest thing for an actor to do is to present a totally blank slate that the audience can pour itself into. She does this, then gives us a conflicted blank slate. It’s at least as tough a nut to crack as the movie that contains it.
What infects The Female is empathy, something neither she nor her handler, The Bad Man (Jeremy McWilliams) possesses. It is something that cannot be afforded in their line of work, whatever the ultimate purpose of that may be. And that will bring us to the probable reason of why so many seem to hate this movie: there is never a breath of explanation in it, anywhere, as to why they are seeking out men who can vanish without a trace (whatever the reason is, their demise is pretty horrific and apparently not very speedy). Under the Skin requires engagement from the viewer, to the level that the viewer has to connect and devote themself to the whys and wherefores of what is happening. The only other movie I can think of to compare it to is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which is similarly divisive to its audience. Under the Skin‘s narrative is much more straightforward, at least. At its heart, it is what it is like to be human, and that turns out to be complicated. As complicated as the taste of chocolate cake, it turns out.
It’s a puzzler, so I did something I rarely do; I looked at the comments. I would have had better luck asking for the opinion of the local cesspool.
“It’s so long! Nothing happens!” Dude. avoid Tarkovsky. In fact, give up on World Cinema in general.
“I’d rather be watching a wall.” A wall is what you deserve.
“It’s boring!” You’re not paying attention.
“Scarlett Johansson has a fat ass!” That is what you took away from this movie? Go fuck yourself, which is likely the only prospect you have.
It’s obvious, I guess, that I liked it far more than I originally thought as the final credits roll, that I would be driven to actual anger by Idiots on the Interwebs, Incorporated. I’m still haunted by it days later, that it pricked so many responses deep inside me. It has completely – and you will have to forgive me – gotten under my skin.