‘Under the Skin’ Review
From the center of a black screen a white dot forms into a sphere. Then, blue discs and then, finally, what looks like tar draining away from pure white. Mixed in with eerie music and some incoherent babble from a female voice. Even though I've seen all of 'Under the Skin' I still only have a vague, gut reaction idea of what these opening moments are meant to represent. And...I think that's exactly the idea?
I can say with authority that the intended emotion is one of dread. After something of a second opening (featuring a recurring motorcyclist character picking up a dead woman's body from the side of the road), we eventually "meet" our lead character.
Scarlett Johansson just kinda appears and she's wearing the clothing (and maybe the body) of the woman picked up from the side of the road. Next, she's behind the wheel of a van in a vintage store leopard print coat, stylized black hair and red lipstick.
She hits the roads in and around Glasgow, trying to lure male pedestrians to ride alongside her. Looking the way she does, it isn't hard. Soon she brings a man back to her abode, which becomes a surreal spider's web (black widow, indeed) of goopy sludge and sensuous, rhythmic sound design. The men are encased in a light blue void and then...something happens to them.
This pattern is repeated, making side-trips to beaches and dance clubs, but the outcome isn't always the same. Not every man makes it to the blue void. One man, who appears to be suffering the same symptoms as the Elephant Man, is spared.
However, I doubt he actually sleeps with Johansson, because the one time she does get busy with a guy (at his place, not her abode with the amorphous interior design) she kinda freaks out when she realizes what's supposed to go where.
'Under the Skin' is clearly working on a few levels here. There's the metaphor, be it about female sexuality or empowerment or what-have-you, and then there's the pure cinema trance that Jonathan Glazer's film puts you under.
From that opening collage of images there are direct references to '2001: A Space Odyssey' - an eyeball and lights zooming on the periphery of the motorcyclists' helmet. I'm not going to say that 'Under the Skin' has quite the amount of sensory panache as that masterpiece, but it definitely wants to get you in that zone.
I read a little bit about the book that 'Under the Skin' is loosely based on. From there I learned that Johannson's character is actually a space alien. Unless I missed it, there's really nothing in the text that says this. (Though it does offer an explanation of some of the special effects-driven moments.) I also learned that nearly all of the interactions she had were with non-actors who were unaware that they were being filmed. This certainly makes reflecting on the movie interesting, but is in no way necessary knowledge for enjoying the film.
To enjoy the film, you just have to be willing to give yourself over to a slow and meditative state. (There's plenty of Scarlett Johansson nude to coax you on your journey, so no need to fret too much.) Comparisons may be made to 'The Man Who Fell To Earth,' and while that's another trippy take of a visitor from the stars, this doesn't have anything as close to that film's specificity of plot. The goal, I believe, is to get us to see "our world" from the point of view of someone who has never set eyes on our planet or culture before. Unfortunately, with so little character development to go on, the struggle to piece together motivation stymies any intended transference. We don't get totally in her head, but it is still rewarding to stay in your own and watch.
'Under the Skin' premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.