“A genuine revelation. We may finally have an heir to Kubrick.” – LA Weekly
“A grand statement on what it means to be a human being.” – Blankprojecter
“It’s simply one of the most unique, original and mind-blowing movies you’ll see in a theatre all year.” – Playlist
It’s rare to find a movie that has been so extravagantly praised and does not live up to your expectations. Under The Skin is an unbelievable and exotic masterpiece. It’s nothing short of what everyone has said it stands out to be and for that I’m truly glad. Very often you’ll hear a movie being exalted with immense praise and it creates a kind of pressure on you before you actually watch it. I think this time, for this movie I, alone, am responsible for the experience I derived out of it. My movie review will not be what it would (should) have been had I not read the book before I watched the movie.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer and loosely based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under The Skin is a sci-fi, mysterious and deeply beguiling thriller revolving around an extraterrestrial creature in a human form who drives a white van and picks up lonely, wide-eyed, single and eager men. The apparent stroke of luck always baffles these men after seeing this woman with deep-set eyes, a mop of dark black hair, but the most striking feature being her lips heavily coloured in with red lipstick. When she starts to converse with them, it is next to impossible for these men to believe that it is going to be anything else except a quick hook-up. The vulnerability at this stage grows quickly and even in the midst of the dark quicksand-like velvetness surrounding and engulfing them when they return to her place, they cannot seem to get past their desire and notice that they aren’t actually going to get lucky at all.
This forms the basic premise of the plot that involves very little dialogue and mostly leaves the audience to understand what they will.
That’s how the book is too, for the first half at least but words always bring a greater understanding with them, a ‘read between the lines’ that is somewhat obvious and you can reread and figure out eventually. However, Under the Skin, the movie, is not what the book is and I feel badly for expecting it to be like that in the first place. When a movie is loosely adapted from a novel, it’s best to look at both the media in different lights. To respect what the directors and scriptwriters saw in the book and thought appropriate for a cinematic presentation and what the author of the book did with his words alone to create that inspiration. Had I not read the book before watching the movie, I would be in a state of complete awe. I still am, but it somehow feels secondhand. Like I experienced this moment of beauty somewhere in another time through another source. I could compare and tell you what the movie does that the book didn’t and vice versa but I’m not looking to make a comparison here. I would only suggest that you watch the movie first and then go to the book to better understand both the interpretations, first individually and then as two parts of a whole. Of one thing I assure you, the build to the climax in both, the book and the film is absolutely perfect in both situations, different as the respective situations may be. The explosion of understanding that is expressed in both the respective endings is what unites the book and the movie into one. I couldn’t get rid of my unease at how the film was skipping scenes I had imagined in my mind when I read the book. I was restless and unable to focus because I was caught up with what I had expected to see. I wished I could unlearn what I knew just to be able to enjoy the movie for the breathtaking and hypnotic haze it was endlessly weaving. Alas. If you’re reading this, you’ll know better. My good deed for the day is done.
Caution: Spoilers ahead because this review simply cannot even be written without revealing spoilers.
Scarlett Johansson’s quixotic portrayal of an alien is so unnervingly beautiful and near perfect that you cannot help but feel maybe she got under your skin when you realize you are looking at all the human beings she encounters with the same distant and detached eyes. My words will fail me if I start to tell you what a remarkable role she has played with just her body language, her eyes, her honey-glazed voice and the unflinching emotionless expression carved into her face. I’m beginning to think if the artificial intelligence software from Her (voiced by Scarlett, herself) had a face, that’s how she’d look. Fur coat, black messed up hair and that exact same posture. While her voice in Her simply breathes humanity, there is a kind of intoxicating tinge to it in Under the Skin and it’s more compelling and unreal than any voice I’ve heard. Even for a moment you are not betrayed that she is human under that flawless skin.
The movie begins with a very Kubrickian scene and it’s rightly been described so. The abstract birth of Scarlett Johansson’s character in some universe as a biological process we are not meant to understand, but simply absorb. The vastness of the earth and landscapes, the fixed camera shots over these expanses, the uncomfortable silences at the perfect moments and the gripping story that succeeds without much talk and telltale are sure signs of why Jonathan Glazer’s direction has been credited with such praise. If you are not into art films, if movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and the like leave you confused and feeling disoriented about life, then Under The Skin won’t work for you. What you should try to understand is that these movies try to capture something larger than life in their own way and they are supposed to be unsettling until you can think deeply and see through them.
Scarlett’s nameless character is a female alien (I will call her Isserley from now on as per the book) who seduces young males, single and mostly on their own; unanswerable to anyone. The part that the movie skips out is why she does this dance when she has no intention of indulging in any sexual activities at all. Once she lures them to her house, a black, glassy, tar-like mist surrounds them as she walks backwards and undresses with agonizing lethargy. While the victim hastily undresses himself, he is unaware that he’s actually being pulled in by this dark black surface.
The movie starts out with a guy on a motorcycle who brings a body to Isserley that looks almost like her. If she is another alien like Isserley or whether Isserley simply needs her clothes is not clear. What we do know about this motorcycle guy is that he is her minder, of sorts. He keeps an eye, takes care of the victim that Isserley lets escape and finally in that last scene watches Isserley burn.
There are scenes in the movie that have been shot on the streets of Glasgow with hidden cameras. Even some of the men Isserley picks up are actually people who don’t know they’re being filmed. All the scenes shot in her van are filled with a queer feeling, a sensation of an outsider watching the world through the windshield of their car. There is also that fearful notion of a predator watching its prey. The entire movie could be shot in that van and it would still be a visual delight.
When Isserley meets a guy near the ocean, hoping to pick him up, she asks him, “Why here?” and he answers it after a moment as if the knowledge just dawned upon him, “Because it’s nowhere.” Just as soon the man witnesses a girl drowning and her father jump in to rescue her. Without a thought he runs after them. Isserley watches this tragedy with a detachment akin to the one she shows when she picks up an ant from the body the motorcycle guy brings to her. At this point the audience can understand that Isserley is not human and get used to the idea.
Isserley picks up all sorts of men. Unlike the book, there isn’t a particular type or build she’s searching for as a means to her obscure ends. There is a brief scene where we see what is happening to the men once they’re sucked in the black nothingness. We see that the men are suspended in the abyss and the life in them, the muscle and the mass is being sucked out. After which we see bloody red mass, like the mashed up remains of the insides of a person flowing on a factory-like reclined platform. Only if you’ve read the book will you understand what that means. If you haven’t, it simply adds to the weirdness of the movie.
The change in the pace of the movie creeps in when Isserley meets a guy whose face is deformed beyond recognition or probably suffers from a very ugly disease. She picks him up hoping to lure him back to her house but suddenly finds herself seducing him differently than she would any other man. The man here is different and oblivious to her advances. He answers her flirtatious questions in monosyllables and reiterates that he is only looking for a lift to the supermarket. When Isserley asks him if he has friends or a girlfriend, he replies in the negative to both. Isserley finds herself oddly connected to this man, and asks him a simple question while placing his palm against her cheek, “When was the last time you touched someone?”
This is the victim Isserley lets escape after briefly catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror.
What follows is the gradual awareness Isserley develops of herself and her new body. She finds herself reacting differently. The transformation is subtle but so powerful at the same time when a man she meets takes care of her. We see her trying to actually touch another person and explore her own self by doing so. Isserley is frightened, at first. Like any human would be. There is a scene where Isserley is so terrified of her body reacting to this man that she pulls close a lamp shade to explore this powerful space between her legs. It’s funny that some audiences were intending to watch this movie just for the nudity because believe me, this is not the kind that arouses, it will only shock you.
Isserley runs into the woods now feeling thoroughly disoriented and confused at this new understanding of herself. Her face, usually so brim set can now be seen furrowing with worry and fear. Fear of what? I guess none of us can know that for sure. She tries to escape from it and by this point I’ve all but forgotten that Isserley is in fact, an alien. The revelation in that last scene although quite different in portrayal from the book is done in a fascinating and convincing way and only then do you feel you can exhale the sigh you’ve been holding in the entire time during this beautiful nightmare.
Although categorized as sci-fi, the film borders on many more complex themes. What truly transcends the movie is the eerie background score that is almost synonymous to Isserley’s ravish appearance. The galactic, synthesized beats give the aloofness of Isserley and the alien feel of humans on the street the perfect setting. Under The Skin is incredibly disturbing and unforgettable in many regards; a deep insight into what we really are beneath our faces. If there’s anything that binds us all is earthly emotions of pity and compassion. It’s not clear if Isserley got too close to them, or if she wanted to fight it. But the most intriguing part is that whatever the message intended to be will get injected under your skin and once it has insidiously settled there it’s hard to shake it off. In my opinion, those are the kind of movies worth watching more than once.