Review: “Under the Skin”

Oh geez. This is weird. This is a weird one, guys. I decided to go into the theater with absolutely no prior knowledge of Under the Skin, other than that it stars Scarlett Johansson –because really, what more did I need to know? As it turns out, there is something else I needed to know:

“An alien seductress preys upon hitchhikers in Scotland.”

That is NOT a spoiler. It’s the one-sentence synopsis of the film on Wikipedia / Rottentomatoes / Imdb, the one sentence I kind of wish I had read before going in. Because, despite being labelled as science fiction online, the vast majority of the film is only science fiction if you know it’s science fiction beforehand. Without that one sentence blurb, the film felt to me like a rather pretentious psychological thriller. I mean, it kind of does either way, but I still wish I would have known. I could have guessed ScarJo was an alien based on her admittedly fascinating performance, but the movie is already so bafflingly cryptic that even that one sentence of certainty would have completely changed my perception of the film as I was watching it. You’ll understand that her character is kind of a weirdo, you’ll see that she’s up to something involving picking up and killing men, and it’ll be immediately apparent that you’re in for a slow, trippy journey. You just won’t understand much else. Unless of course you’re reading this, in which case you’ll know she’s an alien. Thank me later.

The thing is, once you know that this is sci-fi (as I wish I had), you’re free to focus on the best parts of this movie: the beautifully-shot, evocative visuals (and I’m not just talking about naked Scarlett Johansson, though that’s there too) and the most memorable sound design I’ve heard so far this year.

Knowing she’s an alien allows you to orient yourself, making it easier to understand her actions and her emotions (or lack thereof). At the beginning of the movie, before it became obvious that she wasn’t human, I found it funny that in this movie Johansson displays less personality than in Her, where she was literally just a voice. Now that seems to be more of a compliment than anything else.

undertheskinbdcap2_original Under the Skin isn’t the first purposefully secretive, vaguely sci-fi movie I’ve seen — it immediately called to mind last year’s Upstream Color, which like Under the Skin can be frustrating in its unrelenting refusal to hold the viewer’s hand, but both films are undoubtedly transfixing in its beauty. They are less stories than they are puzzles. There are rules, and it’s up to you to figure them out. It demands more participation from the audience than the vast majority of movies.

I can’t say I dislike this type of film — at least not in principle. Momento and Upstream Color are two films where I felt it worked fairly well, because those films benefitted from the film’s lack of exposition on a narrative and thematic level. Obviously, Momento was about a guy with amnesia, so to disorient the viewer as to when events are taking place is to put them in the same mindset as the protagonist. Genius. The scientific concept that drives the plot of Upstream Color is in itself abstract, so the plot was scrambled to emulate that abstraction. Fantastic. In comparison, there isn’t anything in Under the Skin’s basic narrative that naturally calls for such an ambiguous film. It’s about an alien who murders men. You could argue that we are being put into the place of an alien who is new to Earth, but she understands her mission and seems to already be accustomed to most of the rules of the planet. Yet we’re left in the dark and I can’t see a good reason for that — except that the director seemingly wanted to mess with us. Case in point: even after so much of the plot is impossible to decipher, all of the characters other than Johansson have extremely thick Scottish accents.

Now that’s just cruel.

All of this isn’t to say that the movie isn’t worth watching for the incredible look and sound. It’s visually and aurally unique in a way that we need to see more of. There’s a real sense of place as the film moves around Scotland, and some of the shots are so beautiful that this can’t be anything other than the work of a director who knows what he’s doing, and knows that he’s good at doing it.

I was pretty mad at the film on my way out of the theater. If there was any message, I had completely missed it. I felt cheated; the whole thing seemed to be nothing but a beautiful prank. I was getting ready to write something stupid like, “I would have expected a movie called Under the Skin to understand that beauty is only skin deep.” But the movie had done its job. It had gotten under my skin (ugg), and made me curious enough to start reading more about it.

As it turns out, the film is a thoughtful, nuanced exploration of the experience of being a woman. Wait, what? Ohhhh. Yeah, it made sense in hindsight, and I felt a little stupid for not getting it. But then I started thinking that maybe it’s not all my fault. Maybe the film could have gotten that metaphor across if it didn’t seem so hellbent on not getting the metaphor across. In a way, I guess it is unique in that it requires audiences to think about it once its over in order to better understand it, and it’s surely one of those movies that benefits from multiple viewings. Again, it does earn its title.

But what can I say? It frustrated me. It had something beautiful to say, but I didn’t appreciate how closed off that message was. Sure, it’s not Donnie Darko levels of indecipherable, but I was confused, alien or no alien. Yet, I was also absorbed. So I guess, this is a great movie that I hated? Or is it a bad movie that I kind of loved watching? Should you watch it? I don’t know, it depends if you think braving 108 minutes of head scratching is worth taking in the beauty of Scotland and naked ScarJo. It’s your call. I won’t judge you.

Score : 3 out of 5

– Sam

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