UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

7.5 out of 10

Release Date: 14th March 2014

Director: Jonathan Glazer (Birth / Sexy Beast)

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Michael Moreland, Scott Dymond, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek and Paul Brannigan

Writer: Walter Campbell / Michel Faber

Trailer: UNDER THE SKIN

under-the-skin-poster.jpg

Why do visionary film directors (especially when they’re making science fiction films) feel that they can get away with abandoning narrative halfway through? I know we’re meant to just be swept away by the immensity of the vastness of the big black yonder and all its dazzling wonders, but Roeg, Kubrick and now Jonathan Glazer could all have done with a pedantic script editor or bossy producer to tell them to have another go at the second halves of their (admittedly massively impressive) Official Visionary Masterpieces™ THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and now UNDER THE SKIN.

UNDER THE SKIN tells the tale of an extraterrestrial (played by Scarlett Johansson) who goes to Scotland, adopts the guise of a young woman, then finds food (in human form) before getting into a spot of bother. It’s a bit like ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL but without ET, Elliott or anyone from the government, and with lots of nudity and Profound Moodiness. So not like ET at all.

The film comes up with a gimmick (which it must be proud of ‘cos it uses it repeatedly) of having Johansson trawling Glasgow in a white A-Team van and picking up men (real men, not poncy actors – except in the bits where they need actors for all the plot stuff) to whom she offers lifts. I think we’re meant to be astonished by this daring vérité approach but it just left me wanting to see the out-takes.

(Actually, how did this work? Johansson was driving a van, seemingly alone, with hidden cameras in the cab of the vehicle; the director and some bodyguards were in the back; she coaxed complete strangers into the van, chatted with them … then what? Pressed a panic button if necessary, or else waited for the director to call ‘cut’ before telling the clueless civilian that he’d just starred opposite a disguised Hollywood A-Lister and will he sign this form to allow the director to use the footage? Did they get paid? Or eaten? The more I think of it the more this sounds like the interesting bit of the film, because to be honest the actual on-screen stuff quickly gets tedious.)

Anyway, the mysterious alien abducts the hapless men, and, if they’re played by proper actors, takes them to a house which is like a TARDIS but more cheaply designed (completely black and with a sinister secret swimming pool), where terrible things happen.

After a while the film dispenses completely with any notion of plot and the alien just wanders moodily around, occasionally abetted by a mysterious motorcyclist until things go horribly, catastrophically awry in a bothy (a Scottish hut for hardy walkers). (This is the second consecutive film I’ve seen (DEMON BABY is the other) featuring significant supernatural activity in a bothy – is this the start of a new trend? We could call it bothy horror.)

It’s an amazing looking film, and in some senses surely unique. The imagery, the atmosphere and the music are oppressively powerful, and it’s that atmosphere that stays with you, as well as individual shots: the eye at the beginning, the white bodies against black obsidian nowhere backgrounds (and vice versa), the occasional slash of red. The director and cinematographer can turn even mundane shots like someone waiting at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere into an arresting image. Mica Levi’s score is excellent, all teeming strings and Ligeti-ish clusters, which adds to the nightmarish tone. The whole thing feels like a very intense labour of love, and that’s something which also undermines it.

I think my problem with the film is that it’s a very Serious Film, utterly humourless, po-faced, demanding to be seen not as a film but as a Statement About Something, the sort of film which is consciously designed to impress festival juries, award-giver-outers and critics, but which doesn’t follow its own instincts. The film-makers never seem to acknowledge any of the absurdities of the situation, and they’re in denial about the film’s real predecessor, SPECIES (this is basically a film about an alien which takes the form of a sexy woman in order to seduce men). And the film also errs in its basic storytelling. The director said somewhere that he saw it as being about immigration (I’m paraphrasing), yet by casting a famously attractive woman in the role, it inevitably becomes more about the treatment of women than the treatment of refugees. Which is possibly just as well, because as a film about refugees it shows that they come over here, disguise themselves, seduce then eat our menfolk, then the film expects us to be sad when the natives say enough is enough. So, as a film about refugees (or any type of immigrant) it’d be a great bit of propaganda for UKIP, the BNP, the Tory right, the Labour heartland voters and Mr Trump. Actually that should appeal to quite a lot of people. As a film about women, it’s probably even worse. Let’s see, the protagonist dolls herself up in order to prey on poor innocent men then dies because someone fails to rape her. (Quite a significant spoiler there – sorry.)

There’s no denying its surface gleam, its dazzling misery and powerful imagery; but if you sit back for even a few seconds and think about what the film’s saying then it seems to come horribly unstuck. Jonathan Glazer has assembled an extraordinary kaleidoscope of scenes, sounds and images, but his storytelling is, at best, muddled, and at worst, hideous. In a way UNDER THE SKIN is a depressingly empty film, a pretentious housing estate sci-fi (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with housing estate sci-fi) (mind you the current exemplar of the genre is the frankly loony Jean-Claude Van Damme non-starrer UFO so it’s certainly a genre with a long way to go). And, being an empty film, you can let your mind fill it however you want. But turn off your brain and it’s a hauntingly unsettling triumph.

Review by Matt Usher

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

  • Scarlett Johansson: Captain America 3, The Jungle Book – Origins (voice), Hail Caesar, Avengers Assemble 2, Lucy (2014), Chef, Captain America 2, Her (voice), Don Jon, Hitchcock, Avengers Assemble, We Bought a Zoo, Iron Man 2, He’s Just Not That Into You, The Spirit, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Nanny Diaries, The Prestige, Black Dahlia, Scoop, The Island (2005), Match Point, In Good Company, A Good Woman, The Perfect Score, Girl With The Pearl Earring, Lost In Translation, Eight Legged Freaks, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World, Home Alone 3, The Horse Whisperer, North
  • Joe Szula: Neds
  • Paul Brannigan: Scottish Mussel, Beyond, Sunshine On Leith, The Angel’s Share
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