“Under the Skin” (2014)

by A.J. Hakari

"Under the Skin" poster


If I had a dime for every time that I’d been accused of exclusively preferring art-house cinema over anything mainstream, I’d have crowdfunded a couple John Carter sequels by now. It’s true that, as a critic and movie fan at large, I enjoy a challenging piece of work now and again, but it doesn’t mean that this realm of film isn’t a massive crapshoot. For every 2001: A Space Odyssey that engages me with its abstract set-up and compels me to uncover something new upon repeat viewings, there’s a Black Moon or A Safe Place that so aggressively piles on symbolism and begs to be analyzed, you’re left too exhausted to even want to dig deeper. Caring about what themes might lurk beneath the surface is essential to getting a pleasurable experience from any picture that takes the scenic route from Point A to B, and fortunately, 2014’s Under the Skin has you doing just that in a few enigmatic minutes. It’s a tricky premise executed in a perfectly nimble fashion, baiting the audience to follow it for so long while imparting so little information. Under the Skin tells a relatively straightforward narrative, yet not only are enough blanks left for viewers to create their own interpretations of the events, the flick’s stark and trippy atmosphere is plenty of incentive to make them try in the first place.

No one knows who she is. No one knows where she came from. All that’s certain is that a mystery woman (Scarlett Johansson) is scouring the streets of Scotland…and she’s not of this earth. Donning a dead girl’s wardrobe, this being travels night and day in search of men, having been designed to resemble a total knockout for the specific reason of catching their attention. Once she lures these gents back to her home, they proceed to sink into a gooey black void, where their bodies slowly dissolve to serve some unknown purpose. Coldly does the alien go about her business, making quick work of netting a number of stranger unlucky enough to fall into her trap. But after attempting to seduce a disfigured young fellow (Adam Pearson), strange feelings start to stir within the being. She begins to experience twinges of emotion, making her question the mission and look at herself with an increasingly human perspective. Unfortunately, the alien’s road to self-discovery isn’t without its fair share of speed bumps, as deviating from the one task she was trained for leaves her at an almost total loss as to what to do next, as well as making her an easy target for her own extraterrestrial handlers.

I’m not joshing you when I say that Under the Skin drops you into its proceedings cold turkey. The answers to such questions as why the alien is harvesting dudes, what planet she came from, and what made her sign up for this gig are left forever in shadow. Dialogue is in short supply, and even character names are a luxury that director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) doesn’t indulge in (with the credits simply listing the actors themselves). But in spite of this seemingly vague and unnatural nature, Under the Skin‘s logic makes a good amount of sense, with subtle acting cues and entrancing visuals to clue the audience in on the bare basics of what’s going on. The first half of the film appears to be pretty cut and dry, a series of sequences in which Johansson’s character prowls about Scotland in a van and charms unsuspecting guys back to the black pit of doom that is her living room. But following the aforementioned botched seduction — a scene that forces the being to prey on her potential victim in a more emotionally-manipulative fashion — the film takes on a complex new tone, focusing on what happens when the alien looks back upon her acts. That Johansson does so in almost total silence may grind many a viewer’s gears, but it’s to be expected, considering the character wasn’t prepared for anything beyond serving as an object of desire; the thousand-yard stare on her mug speaks more effectively about how utterly lost she is than any monologue could.

Some will take issue with Under the Skin‘s ambiguity and poke holes in the story, which is entirely fair. Even I did some of that myself, sensing a flatness in certain sections of the flick and pondering such ideas as why whoever sent the protagonist on her assignment programmed absolutely no other directives into her than “be sexy.” But the further the plot progressed, the more I realized how fine the picture was getting along just with base character interactions and a lack of constant dialogue. Glazer has engineered Under the Skin so that it simply has no need for Johansson’s character speaking at length about her emotions, scenes of her superiors scheming to get her back, or anything like that. The mystery is just that palpable, and in the end, you’ll appreciate Glazer’s confidence in allowing our imaginations to fill out his universe for him. Though Johansson’s words may be few, her casting is actually a great coup on the film’s part. Not only does the woman herself do an incredible job of performing primarily through low-key facial expressions, her status as one of the screen’s most renowned beauties contributes a whole other layer of subtext; one could definitely read this story as one of any entertainment industry sex symbol trying to claim her humanity. Kudos also goes to Pearson as the most prominent of the alien’s prey, a role in which he exudes heart-wrenching vulnerability in a fairly short amount of screen time.

Under the Skin isn’t your traditional sci-fi tale, but it doesn’t have its head lodged up its hindquarters so deeply that you can’t pick up on where it’s trying to take you. Though many will be drawn to this solely because of the copious scenes of Johansson either nude or nearly bare, the astute will be rewarded with a provocative and uniquely-spun story, while those with more superficial pursuits will be scrambling for the eject button the moment they’re addressed on a deeper level. Under the Skin is absolutely fascinating, a truly moody and chilling excursion whose inner machinations I look forward to exploring in rewatches yet to come.