Under the Skin Review
Having been twelve years in the making it would be fair to say that Jonathan Glazer’s long awaited Under the Skin has gathered a significant amount of subconscious expectation, and, as we all know, uncontrollably escalating expectation is a tragic burden. England’s ‘Golden Generation’, M. Night Shyamalan’s post Sixth Sense career and Sega’s earth shatteringly shite Dreamcast are just a few sturdy examples of comprehensively underwhelming entities that have crumbled under the weight of their own colossal expectations. Escalating rapidly from Glazer’s impossible dream to the most intriguing cinematic prospect in years over the course of a few weeks has left Under the Skin teetering on an insurmountable frenzy, unaided by ludicrous misstatements from critics like “We may finally have an heir to Kubrick”.
While Under the Skin can be declared a space odyssey away from Kubrick’s unattainable genius it’s not the disastrous mess of turgid nonsense that many would have anticipated; its uniquely bold, chilling and challenging approach should be commended even if the ambition shines brighter than the resulting narrative.
Director Glazer’s third feature film, the brilliant gangster oddity Sexy Beast and the forgotten Birth his preceding efforts, is based on by Michel Faber’s 2000 science fiction novel of the same name. The film, and presumably the book also, is set in Scotland where an inexplicable extra-terrestrial, under the guise of human form (Scarlett Johansson), cruises around Glasgow in search of unsuspecting men to surrender themselves to a mysterious harvesting at the hands of their enticing captor. Like a modern day siren song Johansson seduces these doomed men with her apparent charm, beauty and, above all else, sexual suggestion before sealing their fate in a horrific and striking fashion. Quite simply Under the Skin is a surreal, yet unnervingly real, attempt at showing the largely irrational and bizarre human race from, literally, an alien perspective; while the film expands beyond its raison d’être the shift isn’t wholly predictable and worth discovering yourself.
The first half of the film is undisputedly the most enthralling, jarring and threatening. The abrupt, abstract, opening, that’s got more than hint of Bergman’s Persona within it, imbues the viewer with an unsettling tingle down their spine, a sensation that crescendos with every foreboding look and confrontation involving Johansson. As Johansson cruises disconnected from society in her unattainable and unblemished beauty it becomes painfully apparent how isolated and insignificant our lives on this mortal coil are. As she passes by familiar shops, scenarios and streets the camera pans on to the next potential victim as they obliviously go about their inconsequential routines, this slant is never explicitly prescribed but instead powerfully manifests itself through Johansson’s unimpressed alien outlook on earth.
Real adlibbed scenes between the world famous actress and speculatively punting Scotsman juxtapose brilliantly with the subsequent and surreal harvesting sequences that play out in a subconscious void of black. The irony that the simple minded, sexually driven man is walking into a trap is a sight to behold, aesthetically and emotively; the gleaming male stalking the scantly clad, red lipped Johansson into an unknown viscous horror is pulsating viewing, magnified infinitely by the terrifying soundtrack from Mica Levi. The masterful suspense from these scenes, coupled with a pertinent commentary on human society and alienation, make the deliberately underexploited narrative compulsive viewing, leaving an aftertaste of semi sensual intrigue and unease seldom seen beyond dystopian psychological horrors like A Clockwork Orange, Repulsion or Don’t Look Now.
This unconventional cinematic success is not induced by Glazer’s direction, but the stupefying Johansson, her familiar pout is muddied with an unrecognisable bob of black hair and a brooding gaze to match her conscious somnambulism. Comparable to the robotic fem fatale of Metropolis Johansson seeks to expose the primitive urges of man in order to destroy him; this traditional tale receives a slick new twist that’s hauntingly carried by the protagonist. It could be argued that Johansson criminally underplays her role to the point of indifference; however the inexplicable nature of an alien persona gives leeway for believability, besides her abnormal beauty carries a ghostly power that draws in viewer and victim alike.
The enticing first half of the film unfortunately fades mundanely leaving inchoate feelings and ambitions, replaced instead with faux maudlin sentiment that fails to engage like the earlier challenging tribulations. If the first hour is innovative and bold the latter is familiar, conventional and unsatisfying in face of the previous course’s brilliance. In a way it feels like bold cinematic visions and ideas have been formed in isolation. Too alluring to forget, Glazer has moulded the whole film on them leaving an ending to justify the means. A couple of required twists stop the pedestrian pace from terminally beaching the narrative, but excitement remains elusive as the film trudges on with little purpose emanating from its latter segments.
An inimitable half of intriguing cinema up there with the best of its kind, typified by the unholy matrimony of literal reality and science fiction, is lost in a rather conventional narrative about alienation and assimilation recognisable from Pinocchio to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the time Solomon Northup endured slavery director Jonathan Glazer was plotting his masterpiece Under the Skin, while it isn’t the saviour of cinema it is an intriguing and largely unique concoction that unnerves with ice cold efficiency before bowing out to convention. Under the Skin is incomparable to any film of late making it a worthwhile outing even if the level of overall enjoyment doesn’t match the concept. On the plus side the extra-terrestrial manifestation of Scarlett Johansson is a noteworthy selling point; her presence alone is enough to carry proceedings throughout.
Rather than conform to the predictable meh of Johansson in the new Captain America take a punt on Under the Skin, if nothing else it will leave you contemplating more about life and film than just why Robert Redford sold his soul to Marvel.
7.5/10- Enough to Make Your Skin Crawl with Unease