Some of the best sci-fi horror movies put viewers in a trance. These films aren’t about understanding an imagined world, but being thrust into something impossible to truly understand and being disturbed/provoked by an evocative world. Under The Skin is one such movie. The project is one that director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth, and many of your favorite music videos) spent almost a decade putting together. He started with a book, but ended up with a purely cinematic project that feels genuinely original while still tipping its hat to some of the finest mind-fuck sci-fi/horror flicks ever produced. It’s a fascinating and disturbing movie completely unlike anything else on screens today. A movie so bold and thought provoking that no one beyond Mr. Skin is even focusing on all the Scarlett Johansson nudity on display. There’s just too much else to think about and as sad as this might sound, that’s probably the strongest testament to the unique hypnotic power of Under The Skin possible.
Opening with an almost indescribable series of beautiful images in which Scarlett Johansson’s alien being is either constructed, transformed, or merely taught human speech, it’s immediately clear that Glazer won’t be spoon-feeding a second of his vision to audiences. Scar-Jo plays a mysterious alien who is dropped into Scotland in the form of a beautiful woman to seduce men into some sort of bizarre experiment. She drives around the streets in an unmarked van chatting up men and eventually seducing them back to a mysterious and shadowy apartment where they are sucked up by even more mysterious black goo. It’s unclear why or who Scarlett’s motorcycle-riding associate might be, only that the alien gal is quite good at her job, even as she wanders around her new environment in a confused daze she becomes increasingly ambivalent towards her seductive purpose. Eventually Johansson ditches her succubus task and tries to find peace in a small village where she will drag no one into black goo. Yet even as she tries to genuinely connect with human men, her alienation only seems to deepen. It’s the type of story that can only have an obliquely unhappy ending, so saying that’s the case is anything but a spoiler.
This is one of those think-piece sci-fi yarns that leans heavily on the well trotted alien/alienation metaphors. Scarlett’s character might be a genuine alien, but her alienation from society is palpable regardless of her literal status. That might all sound a bit pompous and pretentious, but this is a movie that demands that type of analysis even it provides its own form of visceral entertainment. As impossible as it might be to ever fully comprehend exactly what’s happening until the film has concluded, Glazer teases his audience with that mystery and pulls viewers along with a deeply creepy atmosphere. You’ll spend the entire movie in a state of unease that few horror movies with more graphic and direct intent can muster. Johansson is quite impressive at the center of it all. Her role demands a type of blank-faced, minimalist acting that can be confused for not acting at all, yet she always communicates something through her sense of doe-eyed confusion. There’s a deeply tragic nature to her character and performance that is deeply moving despite being deliberately confounding.
Under The Skin is also a movie that is impossible to discuss without delving into the unique production methods behind the project. During the episodic first half of the film when Johansson hunts her human prey, Glazer actually had Johansson approach real people on the street and filmed them on hidden cameras. Even though he shoots the entire process in such a gorgeously stylized manner that would never give the game away, knowing that aspect of the film’s production adds an extra layer of intrigue to the proceedings. Obviously some of the victims onscreen were actors (particularly one in some amazing prosthetics), but working out who is and isn’t is part of the project’s unique charm. If nothing else, you have to give Glazer credit for his daring filmmaking in Under The Skin. Even though the movie is clearly indebted to the Nicolas Roeg/David Bowie’s confounding 70s sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell To Earth, this is still a film unlike any other.
Oddly, when Glazer’s stylistic and production experiments slowly fade away into slightly more conventional storytelling techniques in the final act, the movie loses its way. When everything comes together in time for the conclusion, it’s not tied up satisfyingly enough to communicate clear purpose, nor does it fit as comfortably with all the brain-tingling experimentation that precedes it. At times it feels like Glazer never quite figured out what the ultimate purpose of his project was, he only knew the tones, themes, techniques he wanted to explore. That makes Under The Skin feel vaguely unsatisfying as the credits roll. Thankfully, it’s not enough to kill the movie. Concluding this brand of arty sci-fi/horror filmmaking ambiguously is practically part of the genre. It’s not the type of film that’s supposed to leave you in a comfortable place; it’s a movie that viewers are required to work out for themselves. Still, even understanding that aspect of the genre Glazer is exploring, something about his movie feels unfinished in a way that clashes awkwardly with how carefully constructed it is stylistically. Regardless, there’s no denying just what a deeply fascinating and evocative film the director made. Under The Skin is certainly a movie that demands to be seen by anyone who enjoys this brand of genre filmmaking. Even if you come out the other end infuriated by Glazer’s creation, it’s impossible to imagine that you won’t be entranced along the way.