Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Under the Skin

Strange, striking, beautiful and unsettling, Under the Skin (which is exactly where this movie gets) marks director Jonathan Glazer’s third film, after Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004). I generally recommend his movies with caution, this one included, but not for lack of cinematic value. Glazer’s bold, fearless style evokes Stanley Kubrick at its best times, as does Glazer’s sparse filmography (Kubrick directed only 11 films in his career). Under the Skin challenges with an ambiguous narrative, but beautiful filmmaking on all fronts and a haunting score by Mica Levi combine for something unique and unforgettable - an experience that, enjoyed or not, cannot be ignored.

An extraterrestrial disguised as a beautiful, unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) roams the streets of Scotland, seducing men and then trapping them through otherworldly means. Over the course of her time on Earth, she comes to view both the human race and the world around her in new ways.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote voiceovers for certain sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick rejected them, wanting viewers to be challenged and to decide for themselves. Similarly, Under the Skin is loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, and though I haven’t read it, I’m guessing it contains a bit more information (including the lead character’s name?) than we receive here. Even the basic knowledge that she’s an alien isn’t made clear until the final sequence. Instead, we’re shown just enough pieces of the puzzle to keep us guessing as to what we’re seeing.

Most science fiction observes aliens from our perspective; we meet visitors from other worlds and wonder at the strangeness of it all. Under the Skin turns this around, showing us our own world through alien eyes. With very little dialogue, the camera follows the main character through shopping malls and crowded nightclubs, environments that, without context or understanding, seem like the strangest places imaginable. Her character develops differently than I might have guessed; she seems confident early on, driving down streets and seducing men with the skill of a professional, but the longer she stays in our world, the less she seems to understand. Human complexity gradually confuses and overwhelms her.

What does she do with these men she seduces? Even that remains unclear. The seductions themselves are beautifully-filmed sequences where she walks across dark water, shedding her clothes along the way. As men follow, they sink below the surface and are trapped. I first thought this was a visual metaphor for sexual seduction, but as the film continued, I took it more literally. One standout, haunting scene transpires below the surface as two of her victims observe one another through the watery haze.

Aliens have long had a place at the movies, sometimes handled with wonderment and care, more often loudly and predictably. With Under the Skin, Glazer contributes something new by showing just enough and telling almost nothing. His less-is-more style fits the subject matter; Johansson’s character is an outsider who never fully understands us, and we never fully understand her. Too strange and contemplative to be a mainstream hit, Under the Skin will be most appreciated by those who enjoy dark, art house cinema, and by fans of the alien sub-genre who think they’ve seen it all.



For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language

Scarlett Johansson appears naked a few times throughout the film, as do several men. Two of the alien’s victims share a frightening moment that I’ll not spoil, but it’s bizarre and otherworldly. An attempted rape ends violently. In its content and challenging presentation, Under the Skin is a film for discerning adults.

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