Spellbounding. Mesmerizing. Mind-Blowing. Terrifying. These are just a few words being thrown around by fellow film reviewers for the latest film by Jonathan Glazer starring the always enchanting Scarlett Johansson. Ok, ok...sometimes enchanting. But, does the film live up to all of the hype surrounding it over at Rotten Tomatoes? Sorta. Come. Come with. Come with me...and let's discuss.
Honestly...I've been wanting to see this film for quite some time. I first heard about it last year when I first started reading reports of Johansson playing a sex-starved alien (that alone, I'm almost ashamed to say, sold the film for me) in a new film by the guy who gave us Birth, Sexy Beast and that one awesome "Rabbit in Your Headlights" music video for UNKLE that has always been a favorite of mine. Jonathan Glazer has long been a filmmaker whom I've paid close attention to...whether it be a cool commercial (Guinness' "Horses and Surfers") or ground-breaking music videos (is Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" video not awesome...or what?). Glazer's stuff has always been interesting and Under the Skin is certainly no exception.
The experience is nothing...if not frustrating. But, it is the kind of frustration that is expanded into wonder once you soak everything in...after the third screening. The film opens during the birth of our main character played by the always great to look at, Scarlett Johansson. And that's kind of been her thing for quite some time. Scarlett's one of those actresses that I've always felt is captivating mostly for her look and not necessarily her acting abilities. When she's good...we get stuff like Ghost World and Lost in Translation. And when she's not so good...we get stuff like...well, everything else. Under the Skin proves that she has abilities beyond her superhuman-like body. She is hypnotically primal in the film. Cold and calculating in one moment, scared and child-like in the next. Mostly without the need of dialogue, too...which makes her performance all the more impressive.
The basic gist is that of a science fiction thriller with the aspirations of a serial killer film. Johansson plays a being from another world out on the prowl in Scotland for male victims that will satiate her fellow otherworldly beings. That's the general premise. To reveal anymore would enter into spoiler territory. Trust me when I say that this is a film best experienced without any expectations or prior knowledge to the events that unfold. It's as if you are a voyeur watching this newborn being adapt to her surroundings as well as her own given flesh...all while hunting her prey. You are riding shotgun as she engages in awkwardly flirtatious chit chat in an attempt to lure her next victim. It plays out like a charming version of the T-800 cyborg from the second Terminator film...if he were so inclined to go out looking for chicks. Except that Johansson doesn't shoot people's kneecaps off.
Glazer does some really great next-level stuff in Under the Skin instead of opting for a more familiar approach. Rather than bludgeoning the victims or pushing an alien tongue through the back of some hapless dude's skull, the deaths are nothing short of extraordinary in that they involve a sort of implosion of the human body...leaving the skin to flutter away. It's art of the highest order and I would recommend the film solely for these death scenes. I pretty much looped the death scenes for a few minutes upon first discovering them. Really cool stuff. In the way of actual gore, I would say the grue is kept to a minimum in the film.
The cinematography really takes your breath away. Daniel Landin, who has also dabbled in music videos and was probably the best thing about 2009's The Uninvited, really brings the film to life. Together with the eerie score, the look of the film is the stuff of nightmares. Pretty nightmares, if you will. The colors and the soundscapes certainly add a few layers to the otherwise complexity of the film's anti-narrative approach.
Speaking of the lack of a narrative, often times I felt like I was watching a wayward Lars von Trier film. Something that approaches brilliance within its desire to mention something important every now and again...only to retreat into the sanctity of its plush visuals. Which is fine, I guess. But, Jesus...I wanted this film to truly shake me. I felt myself falling for the bits where the film turns the tables on the seemingly male predators...only to contradict itself with that abrupt ending. It is a film that relies too much on the notion that it is smarter than you...without really having anything smart to say. I mean...I get the whole gender contrast stuff and the alien murderer bait-and-switch thing that it was going for. But, in the end...what does it all really mean? A yearning for a better species? A sexual awakening that ends tragically? Do we even care?
I did care about Scarlett Johansson finally showing her goods, tho. If I could take a moment to outline the stuff that will most certainly be filling up traffic in the Google images portion of the search browser. Johansson is a beautiful creature in her own God-given flesh. Voluptuous where it counts with an affinity for acid-washed butt-huggers. There's a scene in the third act that involves her character exploring herself in a mirror. If this were a Cinemax affair I'm sure there would be more "exploring" going on...but, here, it feels warm and awkward. Sort of like a child waking up in a grown-up's body...which gives it a certain creep factor that kept me from exploring my own Deviant feelings. She is quite nude here and there throughout the film...but, alarmingly, it's kind of unsexy...and, dare I say...quite beautiful. To be completely frank, I probably added a full point to the score for the absolute awesomeness of her...umm...skin.
In the end...I wanted to LOVE this fucking film. Especially after the third time that I watched it. Instead, I came away feeling like it was a film made for another group of the world. A group that writes for bigger named review sites that usually get their pull-quotes onto movie posters and DVD covers. While I cannot argue the sheer beauty and the gripping experience the film provides, I can't really say that the film is some kind of magical masterpiece either. However, one could argue the relevance of a film simply by how much it provokes thought and its ability to create feeling. I sit here a couple of days removed from watching Under the Skin...and, yet...I still have many thoughts about several of it's elements and haunting scenes. I wonder if the child is okay. I feel for the tumor-faced man and his lonely journey. I lose myself in Scarlett's eyes...as she peers out of the window of her awkward van...stalking her next prey.