Wow! Every once in awhile a film comes out that elevates the medium from pure entertainment to that of art. Under The Skin is just one of those rare cinematic gems. Amid our modern pop cultural milieu this film is not only refreshing to watch; it’s a revelation. Under The Skin is sure to appeal to die hard sci- fi fans in particular thosew ho are well versed in the work of such visionary writers as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. There’s also plenty of material in Under The Skin to keep cinema students, film buffs, and those who write about cinema entertained and intrigued for years to come.
Directed by John Glazer, Under The Skin is loosely adapted from a novel by Michael Faber. The film is set in Glasgow, Scotland where the rugged landscape serves as a character unto itself. Of course no matter how you look at it Under The Skin belongs to actress Scarlett Johansson who delivers a spellbinding tour de force performance. She is nothing short of stunning in this complex role.
Under the Skin presents viewers with an opportunity to ponder what it would be like to move through the world with a complete lack of feelings, emotions, and knowledge about things such as peer pressure, the concept of love, and sexual desire. In the film Scarlett Johansson portrays just such a being. Her character, who early on is revealed to be an alien life form enters the world of present day Scotland with a total lack of understanding of human reactions, morality, and appropriate social behavior. Her character personifies the notion of a “detached observer”; moving through the world as a lonely observer.
Filmgoers who are used to typical Hollywood sci-fi genre fare will no doubt be bored by Under The Skin. It features very little dialogue and the drama is on a cerebral level rather than being action oriented. Johansson’s character is onscreen virtually the entire length of the film. Director John Glazer devotes a great deal of screen time depicting Johansson driving through the streets of Glasgow. Her expression is blank and yet at the same time ominous and menacing. Adding to the creepiness and robotic quality of her character is the fact that throughout the film Johansson rarely blinks.
Under The Skin is an exploration of humanity. Throughout the course of the narrative Johansson is depicted observing people partaking in everyday situations such as shopping in a crowded mall, walking along the street, eating at a restaurant, partying at a club, etc. It’s evident by her lack of reaction that all of these activities are alien (pardon the pun) to Johansson’s character as she displays no emotion or interest in the motivation of these people. They are mere subjects to be studied. As the film progresses, however, Johansson’s character slowly begins to evolve as she begins to attempt to understand what it truly means to be human.
There are moments in Under The Skin when Johansson is shown carefully studying her reflection and her usual blank expression is replaced by a mixture of wonder, fascination, and perhaps even a sense of identification. As we watch Johansson staring at her facade we as viewers become witnesses to her dawning revelation of what it means to be a human being.
Some film critics have noted that Under The Skin explores the cruelty of the world in which we live but the film also features moments of gentleness and compassion. Among the people Johansson meets along her journey is a tender and seemingly genuinely kind man who finds her wandering alone along a country road without proper clothing. He not only gives her his jacket but takes her home and provides the quiet stranger with food and a room for the night. This man is depicted as living a simple rural lifestyle. He seems lonely and accepts Johansson’s odd silence and detached unemotional behavior without question or ridicule. The film also includes a sequence depicting an act of heroism when a swimmer puts his own life in peril to try and save a stranger from drowning.
As the narrative of Under The Skin progresses Johansson’s character slowly begins to comprehend and even start to display human emotional responses. At one point she even falls asleep and reacts with fear and panic while trying to escape from a man who tries to assault her.
Under The Skin is the kind of film that will linger on in viewer’s mind long after leaving the theatre. Its tone is creepy and dark and its visuals are at times mesmerizing. In fact the film contains several shots that could’ve come straight out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as well as several sequences reminiscent of George Lucas’ 1971 work THX 1138. Under The Skin is a remarkable film that’s not only spellbinding to watch but incredibly thought provoking and captivating. It provides no easy answers or explanations but rather than being disappointed by this lack of resolution Under The Skin leaves its audience with a profound sense of mystery and after all isn’t the uncertainty a big part of life?
Under the Skin opens May 9.