Adaptation Drama

Skin-Tight Film Review: Under the Skin

May 9, 2014Ben Mk


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Through the eye of the beholder

By Ben Mk

To be or not to be — that is the question. But what about being human? What does that entail? And how does one begin to even approach the unfathomable task of condensing millennia of our earthly existence into remotely comprehensible terms? In Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer explores these questions and more, by distilling human nature to a few choice emotions — lust, compassion, fear — all as seen through the eyes of an alien observer who bears a striking resemblance to Scarlett Johansson.

Unlike the novel by author Michael Faber, on which the film loosely finds its basis, little is revealed about the identity of Johansson's otherworldly femme fatale, a raven-haired seductress who prowls the highways and byways of Glasgow in an innocuous white van. In the book, she was Isserley, an agent of an alien conglomerate sent to Earth to ensnare suitable human specimens — and male hitchhikers were her chosen prey. In the film version, her character is defined by the aura of mystery that surrounds her, as Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell jettison the original story's more tangible elements, reducing it to its metaphysical core and leaving viewers to speculate on her backstory and motives.

As the film's nameless heroine, Johansson's appearance is meant to allow her to fade into the background; instead it's almost iconic — adorned by her fur coat, her come-hither stare and pouty red lips framed by a mane of stark black hair — bringing to mind Sean Young's character of Rachael in Blade Runner (and indeed, Under the Skin is almost a companion piece to that film, touching on similar themes). Both demure and deadly, she uses her feminine wiles on a string of unsuspecting men — most of whom she meets by the roadside — luring and trapping them beneath sinister, black waters, from which the only hope of escape comes through the liquification of their tissue, organs and bones. Her numerous conquests takes an unexpected toll on her, however, when she finds herself developing empathy for her victims, leading her to abandon her predatory mission in favor of a more self-exploratory one. But the further she allows herself to be drawn into the myriad of human emotion, the more vulnerable she becomes — until finally, the huntress becomes the hunted.

At first glance, it would seem that Under the Skin shares a kinship with the 1995 film Species. Not only do the two films embrace the common theme of female sexual empowerment, they both revolve around a female character who turns the tables on her male counterparts. But there's much more lurking beneath the surface of Johansson's character, for her endgame isn't mere sexual gratification, nor is she driven by a desire to copulate. She only entices her victims with the promise of sex, just as the film titillates with lingering shots of her naked frame.

Glazer explores the aspect of repressed sexuality throughout the course of the narrative, using it as a turning point for her journey of self-discovery, much of which is told not through words, but — quite literally — through Johansson's eyes. Because though she speaks, her words belie her true thoughts. Though she emotes, it's no more than a show put on for the benefit of the men she tries to entrap. And when she's deep in thought — whether it's watching as a scene of human tragedy unfolds before her on a stormy shoreline or intently studying her physique in a mirror — she's utterly expressionless.

The only insight into her thought processes comes from examining the subtle shifting of the pupils or the slightest furrowing of the brow. Johansson's performance is inward-facing to the nth degree, but at the same time it's altogether absorbing and mesmerizing to watch. And in tandem with the unorthodox approach Glazer took to shooting many of the film's scenes — using a hidden camera to film Johansson's encounters with everyday Glaswegians — and composer Mica Levi's haunting (and alien-sounding) score, it helps to create a heightened sense of realism, resulting in a brooding cinéma vérité experience that blurs the line between reality and fiction.

The Bottom Line

Under the Skin may exhibit all the outward trappings of sci-fi fare, but in truth it escapes classification. Director Jonathan Glazer's examination of themes of humanity and sexuality — filtered through the gaze of an alien pretender who is ultimately seduced and betrayed by the nature of her prey — is part glossy science fiction parable, part introspective character study. It's also deceptively minimalistic and strangely voyeuristic — and thanks to Scarlett Johansson's entrancing performance, it will get under your skin like no other film ever has or ever will. [★★★★]








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