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Under the Skin

by Jake Mulligan
Contributor
Thursday Apr 10, 2014
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Scarlett Johansson stars in ’Under the Skin’
Scarlett Johansson stars in ’Under the Skin’  (Source:Film4)

Words like "experimental" and "radical" are thrown around all too often when we talk about movies. But for "Under the Skin," the third film from music video director Jonathan Glazer, and his first since 2004’s "Birth," those phrases may be accurate.

The movie is about an extraterrestrial, played by Scarlett Johansson, who seduces willing men back to her apartment, only to trap them in some sort of otherworldly energy-sapping liquid jail. The film is about an alien form -- and, in turn, it comes in an alien form. The movie never makes her mission explicitly clear; in fact, it doesn’t seem to care much about her mission at all. Glazer’s picture is more interested in images and sounds than in narrative. If it didn’t star Johansson, "Under the Skin" would be the type of film that plays in museums rather than movie theaters.

Johansson’s character -- she’s never given a name, nor is anyone else featured in the film -- draws single men back to her room, where she submerges them in some sort of liquid, which in turn subsumes them. All the while, there are ominous looking men driving around on motorcycles and clinically surveying the color of her eyes, seemingly the overseers for her mission (their role is never expounded on, nor are the implications of her changing eye colors; all narrative beats are left unexplained.) She’s basically a trap for human meat, disguised as one of us.

If it didn’t star Johansson, "Under the Skin" would be the type of film that plays in museums rather than movie theaters.

Soon enough, though, Johansson’s faced with the strange kindness and interconnectivity of the human experience: She sees a baby crying from lack of companionship, the shocked look of a disfigured man who’s offered kindness, etc., and it sets off an existential crisis within her. She starts to wish she were human; she starts to work to become one; she cohabitates with a man; she learns to watch television. The film becomes less about observing humanity and more about her attempts to become part of it. It swaps from a work of social anthropology -- see these people, see these men, see how they treat a woman -- into a work about a woman trying to adapt to the creatures she’s been studying.

Yet the narrative in "Under the Skin" never bubbles up to the service, and the film never presents its events as literally as I’m describing them. Glazer is more interested in the experience of watching his film than he is in the story it details -- his movie is more about images and sounds than it is about what those images and sounds specifically signify. He uses security-camera-style footage to present humanity as a mass organism: Innumerable individuals trudging through malls and nightclubs, all of them enveloped by brightly lit brand names. He uses coldly composed close-ups of food and televisions to attempt to give us an unsettling perspective on what we see as normal activities. He uses a disconcerting score to meld it all together as one strange and unsettling audio-visual experience. His movie coldly observes the rituals and behaviors that make up our daily lives -- eating, being entertained, fucking, whatever -- and reframes it in an alien manner.

When Scarlett’s character is cohabitating with her new male companion, brooding about her newfound conception of human nature, the movie travels to a more conventional form, ditching its security-camera conceit and anthropological aims and settling instead on something tied more directly to its character, and to narrative. Unfortunately, the film is a lot more interesting when it’s coldly observing human behavior than it is when it’s dramatizing changes in Johansson’s character’s nature. "Under the Skin" falters slightly in its second half -- those later character-based moments can’t help but feel like a letdown after the invigorating documentary-by-way-of-experimental-film stylings of the first half -- but it’s still certainly something new. The movie does what so many of its contemporaries cannot: It feels like a film apart from all the other cinema, it feels radical, it feels more like a work of a visually-minded artist than a work of commerce, it feels new. It manages to earn adjectives like radical and experimental.

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