The line between a movie being artistic and pretentious is, like beauty, often in the eye of the beholder. Director Jonathan Glazer helms this tale of a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) stalking lonely men in Scotland. Adapted from the novel by Michael Faber, Under the Skin has sharply divided audiences over the issue of style versus substance.
Stripped down to its core, Faber’s story, adapted here by Glazer and Walter Campbell, is incredibly simple leaving very little room for character or plot development. Putting all his eggs in one basket, Glazer uses an over-stylized look to enhance the story that never attempts to ask or answer basic questions about what Johansson’s character, or her equally unnamed biker partner (Jeremy McWilliams), need with the men trapped like mosquitoes in amber in their monochromatic domicile (which must come from Gallifrey as it’s infinitely larger on the inside than the unassuming exterior would have you believe).
Careful to choose those without friends or family, who won’t be missed, our femme fatale lures the men back home where a little striptease and tar pit do the rest of her work for her. In some ways Johansson’s volumptuous vixen knows exactly what to say and do to entice the men she chooses. However, in other scenes this alien lifeform in human skin is more like a wide-eyed child surprised by pricking her finger, tripping on the sidewalk, or encounter fog on a dim-lit street for the first time. How much she actually understands about what she’s doing is as much a mystery as to the motives for her actions.
It’s during the last third of the movie when Johansson’s character is separated from her partner (overseer?) where we witness the character attempt to act more human, and often failing. Glazer’s script doesn’t have anything positive to say about humanity as those Johansson encounters are either concerned only with getting in her pants (there are not one but two attempted rape scenes) or far too gullible under the sway of an attractive woman giving them the time of day.
The film is shot and edited in a way to play up on the voyeuristic aspects of the story, particularly the various victims’ reactions to the often-undressing star of the film. We watch Johansson and her encounters but never learn much from those experiences. Even during the final third of the movie its unclear whether she actually wants to be more human or is simply attempting to better adapt and understand the cover which keeps her secrets safe.
Given the craft that went into creating it I can’t quite dismiss Under the Skin out of hand, but the monotony of the story came off more boring and dismissive to me at times than bizarre or haunting. Although that might be the point, in part, in displaying the emptiness of the human experience from the view of an outsider, it doesn’t make for consistently compelling storytelling. And although the Scottish countryside makes for a nice contrast to the more sci-fi production design, the heavily accented Scottish and Welsh accents are often near-impossible for a native Earthman to understand much less an alien from another world with limited knowledge of our world.
Stylistically the movie is certainly a success, and given what’s asked of her by the script Johansson’s non-blinking performance properly centers the story around a character who certainly feels otherworldly throughout the movie. Sadly, the film feels as superficial as it is highly-stylized. Although it may be a film I’ll think about from time to time (more for what it is lacking than ideas it raises – or fails to raise), it isn’t likely one I’ll go back to any time soon (or at all). The film’s premise, style, critical praise, and the fact that the attractive star spends several scenes in various stages of undress, suggest despite polarized public opinion Under the Skin will likely earn at least cult status. Whether or not it truly deserves the discussion it garners will be a debate we can continue to have for years to come.
The Blu-ray includes an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film and ten short featurettes on various aspects of the film including the cast, cinematography, effects, editing, music, location shooting, script, and production design.
[Lionsgate, Blu-ray $24.99 / DVD $19.98]