The people of Scotland need a refresher on “stranger danger,” at least according to the events depicted in Under The Skin. The lesson: even if someone looks as comely as Scarlett Johansson, that does not mean it is safe to get in a creepy van with her, return to her rural dungeon-like homestead “about a half an hour away,” and skinny dip in her icky black pool.
Just say no and walk away.
In Under The Skin, Johansson plays a nameless extraterrestrial temptress who arrives on Earth with zero empathy for human beings, and just as much clothing. After taking care of the latter issue, she spends all of her time lurking around in a conspicuous white van, on the prowl for menfolk. She has a specific type — youngish loners without families, even better if they work from home. You know, the kind of guys who won’t be missed if they suddenly vanish? Despite her brief time on this planet, this foreign being has a better understanding of thick Scottish accents than I do, because about half of the dialogue in this film was indecipherable to me. (Johansson herself dons a posh English accent that is perfectly understandable.) Several of the interactions we see were unscripted, using non-actors who apparently never saw one of the biggest movies of all time (The Avengers) and didn’t recognize Scar-Jo in acid-washed jeans, a fur coat, and an edgy black hipster haircut. (However, I assume that the men Scarlett hypnotically seduces in her alien lair were, indeed, aware that this is a movie.)
The film opens with a disorienting sci-fi moment — the temptress, in voice over, masters the English language as we see her obscurely being “formed.” It’s the first of many striking visuals, most taking place in Scarlett’s lair, a surreal space of immense proportions and very few colors. (Either white or black, mainly.) This is in stark contrast to the predominantly drab scenery of Scotland, though we do briefly jaunt to more arresting locales such as a noisy nightclub, a castle’s ruins, and a blustery beach where something incredibly tragic happens. It is in this scene, relatively early in the film, that Under The Skin first grabbed me emotionally; unfortunately, those grabs were few and far between.In theory, Under The Skin is a fascinating study of humanity and gender roles, and I can think back on it with some added context and recall several moments that are thought-provoking, maybe even profound. The experience of watching it was very different, however. Director Jonathan Glazer (who brought us such diverse titles as Sexy Beast and Birth) uses incredibly long takes with obvious intent, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that nearly every shot was held about twice as long as it really needed to be, which made me constantly restless between the more alluring and cinematic scenes. There’s precious little dialogue in the film, which works fine when what’s on screen is captivating to look at, but there’s a lot here that isn’t. Every scene serves a purpose, I’m sure, but what we’re seeing is given so little context that it’s hard to connect the dots until well after you’ve seen the film (and listened to a podcast or two to clear things up, as I did).
Now that I know what the fuck Under The Skin is about — or at least have grasped a few basic ideas — I find it a lot more intriguing than I did while I was watching it. There is at least one motorcycle-riding character whose function in the story completely eluded me; the film takes a jarring and abrupt turn halfway through that left me totally lost about any and all character motivation in a movie that is already very light on such things. Johansson’s alien character begins the movie outwardly confident, fitting in with humanity reasonably well; she is able to seduce several men easily and make the sort of small talk that results in a quick jaunt to someone’s place for some baby-making, and while this is at least partially a commentary on how easily a good-looking woman can get an average-looking man to go home with her, no matter how strange she is or how murder-ready her house looks, she’s also not so bizarre that it’s a total tip-off to her real agenda. Then, in a key scene, she picks up a hooded stranger who reveals himself to be disfigured; she runs through her whole seductress routine, but feels more sympathy for this kind and lonely man than she has for any of her prior victims. What happens next is pretty confusing, sending this exotic creature out into the world sans white van, sans black murder pool, on her own. All of her previous knowledge about how to approximate being human seems to have vanished, and it’s not clear why. This is the moment that the alien herself truly attempts to be human — trying a piece of cake, taking a stab at romance — because she apparently has now felt a human emotion — sympathy for mankind. Yet it all feels like a separate movie, because her sudden confusion and disorientation don’t seem to line up with her previous confidence and ease of assimilation into the human world. It’s a big leap to make all at once, and the perplexing aspects of the story in that moment add to the overall confounding quality. Scarlett literally walks into the fog as that transition happens; figuratively, so do we.
There are essentially no details provided about where this alien is from or why she’s here. I certainly wouldn’t want a lot of exposition to spell it all out — I’m fine with a reasonable level of ambiguity. But in Under The Skin, I was just lost, and it would have been a very different (and much better) viewing experience if I’d had just a slightly clearer understanding of what was going on. The key is the alien’s relationship to a man who appeared to me to be a human minion under her thrall; in this case, she is the sole extraterrestrial on Earth, and she’s in charge. Subsequent research has given me the idea that perhaps this man, and others, are also from a planet beyond, and she works either for or with them; this adds more subtext, but with so few clues from the screenplay, I never got such an inkling while actually viewing the movie, hence confusion. The alien’s story is much more tragic if she is essentially a prostitute from outer space, designed to seduce human males for the gain of her species; but I thought she was here alone, eating them for herself.Is that my bad? I think not really. Jonathan Glazer gives us less than the minimum to comprehend this story, which is based on a book that has little in common with the film but probably makes things much clearer. I’m frustrated, to be honest, because I wanted to like this movie, and I think I would have, if Glazer had budged just an inch or two on being so enigmatic. Am I asking for this movie to be dumbed down? I suppose I am, and I feel bad about that. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that Glazer withholds such details mainly for his own satisfaction, rather than with his audience in mind. Why deny us compelling dialogue, a comprehensible story? I’m only asking for a little more context to make all the murky metaphor palatable. Instead, it’s like he wanted 95% of his audience to find this movie… well, alienating.
Despite my frustrations with its director, Under The Skin contains several cinematic moments I won’t soon forget — ones that I wish were attached to a more consistently riveting movie that I could watch over and over again. (I’m not sure I could soon sit through this one again without fast-forwarding.) The end is hauntingly beautiful, disturbing, and unlike anything you’ve seen before, as are the unnerving seduction sequences, featuring horny naked men meeting a bitter end at the hands of a black widow from space. These scenes have all the right elements to be horror classics, as arresting and unsettling as moments from The Shining or 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, in the case of the latter, just as perplexing). It plays like a rape-revenge movie in reverse, with the female first exacting her ruthless predatory methods on unsuspecting males, then becoming vulnerable and meek in the third act as she squares off against one very creepy dude in the woods. (Again, I’m mystified as to where all her powers of seduction and thrall went in the latter half of the movie, and why she was so very helpless.)I know Under The Skin has a lot to say about “What It Feels Like For A Girl” (Glazer totally missed the boat on having that Madonna song in his movie). A lot of it has come into focus a day after I saw the movie (thanks, in large part, to extra-textual sources). I would even call the film “powerful,” if you can figure out what the hell is going on.
But that’s a big if. The hypocritical ways our world treats female sexuality would indeed seem bizarre to an outsider, probably even frightening. Men prey on females all the time, and rarely would they suspect that she is doing the same back to them (tenfold!). All intriguing ideas… which I had between seat-shifting and a couple yawns as I watched Scarlett Johansson drive around in her van for what seemed like hours, occasionally picking up a friendly bloke whose Scottish brogue I couldn’t decipher to save my life.
Under The Skin is a curiosity, featuring a pretty major movie star in a weird, revealing role; I’m sure a number of people will see it primarily because they’ve heard she gets naked in it, which is a strange exploitation of an actress considering the film’s message about the function of female sexuality in a male-dominated world. Just like her alien character, Scarlett Johansson can be seen as a piece of appealing flesh meant to lure men to the cinema; men wrote and directed this movie, but it’s this woman who gets asses in seats. Her body, her sexuality is used for commercial purposes… but does that mean she’s in charge?
It’s ironic (and probably not totally accidental) that Under The Skin is being released at the same time as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Johansson plays Natasha Romanoff, AKA the Black Widow — named after the infamous arachnid who eats her male suitors after mating with them. Natasha Romanoff does no such thing (to the best of my knowledge), but the unnamed space-hussy in Under The Skin does something like that. (There’s some kind of black widow-themed meta-triple-feature to be found in The Winter Soldier, Under The Skin, and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, but I don’t know what it means.) Johansson is unmistakably the eye candy (for hetero males) in the otherwise sausage fest-y Avengers lineup; she wears a tight black catsuit most of the time, and though she’s brainy enough to exist in a franchise sometimes helmed by Joss Whedon, let’s face it — she’s basically there to give eleven-year-old boys their first boner.
Under The Skin is a direct critique of exactly that type of casting, and of course you can nitpick all sorts of minor points in Marvel movies. But I had a pretty great time with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and understood everything!), which bears little resemblance to the first Captain America movie except for the reprisal of certain characters. Gone are that movie’s period charms; instead, it’s a slick comic book movie that dips one toe into the pool of conspiracy thrillers. (But All The President’s Men it ain’t, despite the appearance of Robert Redford.) It’s in the upper echelon of Marvel movies, perhaps the most consistently good since Iron Man. (The Avengers hit higher highs, but took its sweet time getting there.) I suppose there are people in this world who will enjoy both The Winter Soldier and Under The Skin, but they’re basically as opposite as two movies could be, except for the black widow-ishness of Scarlett Johansson.
For my money, I wish Under The Skin had had a pinch more of Captain America‘s clarity of plot and witty banter (Johansson and Chris Evans spar nicely). And if Captain America had more naked men being flayed, I’d be fine with that too. Perhaps I’ll revisit Glazer’s murky sci-fi drama someday; if nothing else, I will forever be grateful to it for giving us this.