I’m breaking tradition here. Under The Skin, after a lot of mental wrangling, is not a movie I feel I can rate with stars. It’s not a movie that can be rated with stars, but rather with the level of sophistication the audience can bring to its viewing, and what that sophistication can do for them.
The opening shots reminded me of the stark abstract arrangements from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a science-fiction movie that, had I seen it for the first time in 1968, would have probably elicited from me a similar degree of mental wrangling. Now we sit down and dive into 2001 filled with explanations from theorists and critics, which, depending on your level of faith in such explanations, behave as sort of interplanetary tour guides. Under The Skin is another movie I think needs a few explanations. I will keep my hand down and leave it to the experts. Decades from now, we might view this movie side by side with 2001 in a new, liberated light.
Or will we? Is it blasphemous to compare a classic to a modern sleeper? I’m not pushing the idea that Under The Skin is 2001’s equal. No movie can be. Explanations have told us that the seemingly arbitrary shots of characters zipping through colours and growing old in a white room in a matter of minutes, and the meaning of the mysterious monoliths, and the image of a wide-eyed infant floating peacefully above the Earth all pointed to Kubrick’s vision of mankind’s journey over the road bumps of life and its misguided reliance on technology to smoothen the ride. It’s quite deep if you consider it.
Considering Under The Skin, its root are not strong enough to push past the topsoil. It toys with philosophical and existential questions but doesn’t find the pluck to go all the way.
Who is this seductress? What does she want? Why does she want it? Does she work for a higher being, or is she her own boss? She arrives at the movie with skills and social structures regular human beings take years to master (some never master them). She knows how to talk to lonely, desperate, obviously virile men, better than most. She can drive. She even indicates. She knows how to make purchases and slice a cake (where she gets the money to do this is never spoken of). She knows a kiss when it happens; she knows rape when it bludgeons her over the head.
Has she been observing Earth and its people from a cosmic balcony? If she has, why does she choose Scotland as a petri dish for more observations? If I were an extra-terrestrial sexual predator, Perth would have been a choice that came before Glasgow. The primary argument I think most supporters will raise is that she is an alien, and that’s that. No justification needed. Yes, she is an alien, and a voluptuous one, but she is also a character, and I believe backstories are required for any character. Heck, Alex the lion from the Madagascar movies had more personal depth.
This is not criticism. I accept Scarlett Johansson’s character as an entity of sexual predation completely devoid of history. My point here is that she seems lost in her own world, which mirrors ours obliquely. I don’t need to know where she comes from. I just need to know what she’s doing here; her actions cannot be arbitrary.
HAL was a predator in 2001, but he wasn’t arbitrary. He had motives, written in clarity, executed with unadulterated malice. He had an objective. Johansson’s objective seems only to be the consumption of the broken human spirit under the guise of sexual favours, which is hardly an objective at all. Her targets are random. One is heavily disfigured, which might be why she lets him go. Later he is intercepted by the Biker, who I think is working under orders from the Higher Power, the same Power that employs Johansson and makes a brief appearance in one of her “killing” scenes.
They are scenes that excite my fancy. Jonathan Glazer has formulated a picture here that succeeds on visual merit. There is an overarching story tied together by the images, many of which speak more loudly than the words the characters utter. Does it all work? Well. Under The Skin is a dark, brooding, haunted film. I liked it upon first viewing, because it triggers the mind, but I think it requires more thought and patience. I shall award it my time. I shall revisit its soul. I shall penetrate its heart.
Best Moment | The revelation in the woods, near the end of the film. It’s not so much a revelation as a de-cloaking.
Worst Moment | The safety guy in the woods, near the end of the film. His character’s turn seems like a contrivance.