Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin opens with a scene that could easily have found a home in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We’re somewhere in deep space, looking at evolving shapes that emerge from the darkness. You don’t notice it at first, but as the shapes form, a voice is quietly emerging from the soundtrack. The voice tries again and again to form words in English. A point on the horizon forms a singular, recognizable object: a human eye. When these shapes reach Earth, the voice has found a form and mastered human speech just enough to be intelligible. Nothing that we’re seeing looks or sounds like anything that our senses are use to, then the movie reaches Earth and the shapes have formed into something that looks very much like Scarlett Johansson. NOW we have a foothold.
Under the Skin is the kind of bizarre surrealist science fiction drama that never quite feels like a movie. It feels more like something you might read in a book of short stories. There is no real compulsion on the part of the director to explain what is happening or to give it any kind of catharsis. He throws away our comfortable narrative form in favor of a story that is laid out in bits and pieces, with images that we don’t immediately understand so that we find ourselves playing them back in our minds later in an attempt to sort them out. His film is cold, spare and often without purpose or meaning. It is challenging in every sense of the word.
The story, once it gets to Earth, introduces us to two individuals, though it never explains their connection. One is a middle-aged man (Jeremy McWilliams) who zips around the Scottish highlands on a motorcycle picking up dead bodies. The other is a woman named Laura (Johansson), an alien being who has stolen and then donned the skin of a wayward prostitute and then spends much of her time driving a mini-van around Glasgow picking up stray men. She lures them back to her apartment, a strange blackened void that the men never question. She sidles backward, taking off her clothes. The man walks forward, doing the same. Suddenly the man finds himself sinking into black water where he then disappears.
What happens to these men, I will not give away. Suffice to say, it is not pleasant. Why is Laura doing this? What is her connection with the man on the motorcycle? Is she collecting bodies? Is she prepping for an invasion? Questions like these turn over and over in your mind as the movie offers no help in finding an answer. Director Glazer doesn’t want to hold your hand or give you any help in digging for meaning. We spend much of our time trying to connect with a character that is such a blank slate that we struggle find some human dimension to attach to her.
Laura is an alien, this much is abundantly clear. At first, we’re not sure what to make of the images we’re seeing. They are foreign to your sensibilities in terms of the art and structure of movies. The normal palette that we get is the set-up, followed by the problem, then the solution. The structure of Under the Skin dispatches all that, seeing the world through the eyes of someone who has no capacity to understand it. In a way, what we’re seeing is totally an alien’s eye-view.
There are a lot of things to appreciate about Under the Skin, but it is safe to say that much of it rides on the performance of Scarlett Johansson. She’s never been the most expressive actress and that may have to do with the fact that most of her film work is based solely on her looks. Under the Skin uses that lack of expressiveness to its advantage. It also uses her looks to its advantage. An odd, art-house film like this starring a no-name actress in the role might have been easily disposable, but the fact that we know Johansson so well gives the film its juice. Looking at her, we understand very quickly what makes men flock to the side window of her mini-van. There’s a quietly humorous moment late in the film when Laura looks at herself in the mirror while completely naked. As she gawks at her body the joke sinks in that even an alien being has a certain amount of lust for Johansson’s looks.
Yet, Johansson’s performance goes far beyond the external. She plays Laura as a cold, efficient being who smiles only when necessary – it’s part of the job. Driving around Glasgow, she rolls down the window and casually talks with young muscular men who, not unreasonably, walk up and start talking to her. Their thick Scottish brogues are almost impenetrable to Western ears and that’s part of the effect – we’re seeing them through her eyes in a landscape littered with words and exclamations that she doesn’t understand.
What is most alarming is the moment when we realize that we are suppose to have a measure of empathy for Laura. That’s difficult from a being whose mission is harvesting human beings. Yet, the longer she spends in a human form, the more she gains our sympathy. There is a measure of vulnerability about her as the movie draws near its conclusion. The ending, depending on your taste, is either achingly sad or eerily creepy. It all depends on what you think has happened. I, personally, was reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and could only focus on what the movie’s last image might mean.
If this movie doesn’t sound like a ton of fun, you’d be right. This is an Art Film with a capital “A.” Certain viewers will find it fascinating, while the majority will find it bland and frustrating. Like 2001, it is a series of images without the backdrop of explanation. Glazer’s scenes happen without purpose or transition. That off-putting approach has given the film a mixed reaction that has followed it ever since it premiered on the film festival circuit where it made news after the audience booed it at the 70th Annual Venice Film Festival last fall. Positive critics said it got under their skin; naysayers said it got on their nerves.
My personal reaction has evolved over time. I saw the film a week ago, and my immediate response was mixed. I knew I’d seen something strange and original, but damned if I could explain it or even describe what I had just seen. Over the past few days though, the film has had time to marinate in my psyche. I take away from the film a lot of imagery that I’ve tried to piece together. The images were laid out, but my imagination is providing the connective tissue. I am eager to take the journey again. It’s bold, it’s challenging, it’s frustrating, and it’s difficult.
I appreciate the film like this. After all the junk, after all the vampires and cops and guns and romping, stomping robots, after all the bland cacophony, this is the kind of film that I look forward to, something that is deep and challenging. I will take the journey again, and when I do I look forward to what I will discover the second time around. Under the Skin is like a foreign language, one that I am going to understand and decipher slowly over time.
This is the best film of the year.