This Film Gets “Under the Skin” . . .
. . . and not always in a positive way (and, yes, I’m late to the party on this one). A loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN (2013) showcases some fascinating visuals, including special effects. It has an interesting sci-fi concept that includes horror elements. Its star, Scarlett Johansson, does a good job of portraying a voluptuous but deadly seductress whose humanity is only skin-deep. The film also has something to say about what humanity is and whether any human being really has achieved it. Unfortunately, there are long stretches (particularly in the second act) that are just plain boring. As a result, there is a significant likelihood that some cinephiles might not make it to the big reveal at the end unless they force themselves to persevere through the film.
The main reason for this dilemma is that UNDER THE SKIN is self-consciously an art-house film. While science fiction and horror films can be filmed in an artistic manner, they do so at a risk. The danger is that the art can become artifice and thus obscure or diminish the sense of horror and/or the rendering of futuristic elements.
Don’t get me wrong — there are artistic elements that work well in this film. The opening sequence cleverly indicates some type of advanced interstellar travel without being obvious. The special effects (including CGI) are phenomenal in the scene that reveals to the audience the fate of the men that The Female (Johansson) lures to their undoing. She does so without actually having to have sex with them. It is when she explores her femininity and attempts to become human that she herself is undone. Her story is a powerful commentary on the power dynamics and differential between men and women.
Nevertheless, the entirety of the long series of sequences in which The Female drives around Scotland stalking men is not necessary to get this message across. If it were not for spooky cues from the atonal original score by Mica Levi (another excellent feature of this film), the audience would be lulled to sleep. The film recovers in the third act, but the damage has been done, despite the horror of the film’s climax.
Another criticism of this film involves its story. Why would beings who are capable of interstellar travel and able to disguise themselves with living human tissue need to ride around in a minivan and on motorcycles to carry out their mission on Earth? Why do they need to deceive humans into getting what they want from them if they are so technologically advanced? This might be a flaw carried over from the film’s source (Faber’s novel). Alternatively, such information might be in the novel, but would have required exposition in the film that would have detracted from it. I’ll need to read the novel to find out – look for a review of it in my book blog later this year.