I actually decided to see Under the Skin a second time before reviewing it. Given the film’s abstract nature and the level of hype I had personally bestowed on it (bolstered by the good reviews), I felt a single viewing wouldn’t do it justice. Seeing it a second time definitely helped solidify my opinion of it, though not exactly for the better. I’d originally felt the film straddled the line between ***½ and ****, but in reality, it’s on the lower end of the ***½ scale. It has many strong moments and is overall very well-made, but Under the Skin never quite engaged me, either as a drama or as a cinematic vision.
An alien comes to Scotland (Glasgow, I believe), and assumes the form of a dead woman (Scarlett Johansson). Moving about the city in a large van, the alien engages young men with an implied promise of sex, luring them into a pool that seemingly harvests their bodies, leaving only a husk behind. When the alien spares the life of one of these men (Adam Pearson), other members of its species, acting as supervisors, give chase, and the alien’s attempts to escape them and live a normal human life end tragically.
Story isn’t really the province of Under the Skin; the emphasis is on image and mood, and the dialogue generally takes a back seat to Mica Levi’s eerie score. The film begins with an almost totally abstract sequence, perhaps a symbolic trip across the galaxy, perhaps a vague representation of sexual congress, perhaps some biomechanical process, over which we hear a series of words being spoken, methodically–presumably the means by which the alien learns English.
Beyond this, the film is rarely truly abstract–a sequence showing the fates of the alien’s victims is about as far as it goes–but it also doesn’t explain itself much, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions (I admit, reading the Wikipedia summary helped). In of itself, this isn’t an issue; 2001 is fairly obscure and I consider it the greatest film ever made (it’s worth noting some have compared this film to Kubrick’s work), and last year’s Upstream Color is as beautiful as it is cryptic–though it took me a couple of viewings to really embrace it.
In the case of Under the Skin, though, the abstraction is never quite as fulfilling, maybe because it doesn’t go far enough, or maybe because it never feels truly free. If anything, it feels calculated, a little too carefully organized, a little too deliberate in its structure. I never felt really swept up in it–I always felt like I was being held at arm’s length. And that isn’t necessarily a problem, if the film offered more for the viewer to intellectually chew on. But as a story of an alien on Earth, it’s not especially imaginative or insightful (The Man Who Fell to Earth is much more compelling in that regard), and the exploration of Western sexual culture, while intriguing, is still somewhat shallow (the title is kind of ironic in that regard).
(Spoilers; TW sexual assault) The film’s most resonant sequences come in the final third, after the alien goes on the lam and tries to live something like a human life. It goes into a restaurant and orders a piece of cake, but when it tries to eat, it cannot, and when a kindly passerby (I don’t know the actor’s name; the film does not identify who plays which role, and character names are never used) takes it in, a brief period of happiness culminates in an attempt to make love, which is foiled, presumably by the alien’s anatomy. Leaving, the alien goes into the woods and encounters a logger, who later follows it to a hikers’ shelter and begins fondling it. It flees, but the logger tracks it down and tackles it, and begins to tear its clothes off–in the process ripping the alien’s skin and revealing its true form (humanoid, but appearing to be made of charred stone). The logger douses the alien with gasoline and sets it on fire, and the alien flees into a clearing, where it dies, and the smoke rises into the falling snow as the film ends. It’s a jolting, tragic ending, a sobering portrayal of male brutality. (End spoilers and TW)
Aside from these moments, where the film really succeeds are in its sounds and its images. Daniel Landin’s cinematography is incredible, capturing the gloominess of Scottish urban life, the tension of the fellow aliens’ pursuit (one shot early on feels like an homage to 2001‘s Star Gate sequence), the unearthly processing of the men the alien picks up, and the occasional moment of abstract beauty (like the moment when hundreds of images of human life are overlapped over the alien’s impassive face) brilliantly. And Mica Levi’s score, while a bit repetitive, greatly enhances the unsettling nature of the material, especially in its use of strings, evoking both warped seduction and a pounding heart.
Jonathan Glazer’s direction triumphs in the creation of individual scenes and falters somewhat on the larger scale; I think I’ve explained how sufficiently. (One scene I also want to cite: the alien goes to a beach to pick up men and witnesses the drowning of a man, woman, and a dog; it’s quite a powerful scene because it makes no attempt to dramatize the moment. Later, we see the toddler child of the man and woman, crying alone on the shore; simple and shattering.) Walter Campbell’s script, from Michel Faber’s novel, is mostly a framework for the technical artistry of the film; as I’ve noted, the dialogue generally takes a back seat here, and much of it is delivered in thick Scottish accents, which my American ears could not always decipher.
I had initially hoped that Scarlett Johansson would be a strong contender for my Best Actress award this year, but I can’t really give it to her based on this performance. There’s just not enough of a character here; when she’s talking to the men, she’s charming and likable (she uses an English accent, and a rather convincing one at that), but most of the time, she simply has a stoic, impassive look on her face, one which transcends into curiosity at times, but not enough. And the final moments of the film are well played by her as well, fully evoking the fear and pain of the situation. Really, Johansson does very well when she has the opportunity to act, and the faults of the performance are Glazer’s, not Johansson’s.
Since most of the cast is effectively anonymous (and some smaller roles were played by, essentially, passers-by), it’s hard to cite or judge their performances. Adam Pearson, as the young man with neurofibromatosis (more or less what the Elephant Man suffered from) whom Johansson spares (only to be picked up by one of her fellows, and presumably disposed of), is a poignant presence, an isolated man who, invited back to Johansson’s home, literally pinches himself to see if he’s dreaming. The film doesn’t capitalize on the emotional possibilities of the character, but Pearson stands out in the supporting cast.
The actors who play the man who takes Johansson in and the logger are both quite effective, the latter being especially menacing.
As much as I’ve detailed its faults, Under the Skin isn’t a bad film by any means, and it has a lot to recommend it. Many have pronounced it brilliant; you may be among them. And while I find it uneven and at times sluggish, its moments of power, its beautiful images, and its pulsating score all make it worth at least one viewing. I may even warm up to it in time. But for now, I appreciate it but I don’t love it.