Under the Skin (2013) 4.43/5 (3)


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Rating: The Good – 88.9
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams

In his 2000 debut Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer burst onto the scene with all the swagger and verve of a young Tarantino but instead of capitalising on that success, the music video director made only one more movie (2004’s underwhelming Birth) in the next decade and a half. However, despite the lack of hands-on practice, his new film is nonetheless marked by the kind of reach and maturity that, back in 2000, we all would’ve hoped he’d be showing right now.

Based on Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin is a stunning piece of science fiction cinema that lives up to the genre’s loftiest promises in the manner 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, and Primer do. It begins with an extraordinary Scarlett Johansson assuming the guise of a human female in order to lure lonely men (played by unwitting non-actors who thought they were genuinely being picked up and who the crew filmed with hidden cameras) back to her apartment where human reality and that of her species’ morph into a gateway from the former to the latter. The purpose of this seduction is revealed in one remarkable scene that will chill you to the bone – a process of extraction that someone or something else takes care of while Johansson’s alien predator goes back out on the prowl. But with each foray into the world of humans and each victim she brings back, something changes within her that causes her to crave a fuller range of human experience.

Within this stripped down narrative, Under the Skin achieves two equally daring and intangible objectives. Primarily, it offers an examination of human existence as an alien construct but within that aim is the ostensibly narrower but infinitely broader goal of pondering the oft dodged question of what alien consciousness might amount to. It does this not through abstraction or surrealism but through a dramatic realignment of the traditional realism in which movies are shot. Under the Skin has been compared by some to 2001 and it is this regard that such comparisons are warranted. For Kubrick is one of the very few to have previously addressed the hypothetical question of alien perception. Thus, like Kubrick does in the closing sequence of 2001, Glazer (albeit to a lesser extent) methodically probes what experience might be to a sentient being of an incomprehensible nature (incomprehensible to us). A creature born to and framed by a different reality and dimensional constraints. This is what so many sci-fi films avoid dealing with because it obtrudes on any traditional notion of narrative. But through Glazer’s ability to detach from the standards of character perspective and meticulously frame a new kind of perspective around Faber’s vision, an intriguing marriage between the two is achieved.

Central to the project’s effectiveness however is Johansson’s bravery and strength as an actor. She not only carries the film as the only significant character but she builds a character every bit as nuanced as the reality which Glazer gives her to inhabit. A level of technical proficiency is equally crucial here for one misstep along the way and the delicate tangibility of that reality could shatter. Thankfully, that’s what we get. There’s a stark beauty to Daniel Landin’s cinematography that complements the bleakness of the subject matter and Mica Levi’s ubiquitous but unobtrusive score provides an appropriately haunting quality.

It all adds up to a profound meditation on existence that reaches deep into the psyche. It’s cerebral and stimulating but, as is often the case, it’s also extremely disturbing. Anything that makes us abandon our archetypes of understanding always is and so anyone looking for a mainstream science fiction movie should be warned away. This is as bleak a film as you’ll ever see and so it works less as a piece of entertainment as it does a work of art. Even those who appreciate such endeavour may not be inclined to revisit it too often such is the level of discomfort it can generate. Not to worry, though, because Under the Skin isn’t a film you’ll forget easily.

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