Review: Under the Skin (2013)


Review by: Topo Sanchez
SCUM Rating: ★ ★  

In this highly anticipated film by acclaimed director Jonathan Glazer, Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial roaming the streets of Scotland to hunt for male prey. After replicating the guise of a random female found by the side of a highway, the unnamed alien gets into a nondescript van and drives around town to pick up unsuspecting Scottish lads back into her mysterious lair.

Mind you, this is not your usual Hollywood female alien movie like Species or LifeForce, filled with special effects and make up. Under The Skin is a pared down interpretation of the typical alien genre, treading on the edges of an arthouse label. Director Jonathan Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin have successfully delivered a sensitive and beautifully shot drama / horror that rewards the patient audience with a technically creative and visually stimulating adaptation of the Michael Faber novel of the same name.

I say technically creative, because the scenes where Scarlett drives around chatting up different men are supposedly unrehearsed and unscripted. They did this by attaching 6 secret cameras on board the van to capture all the action ‘reality-tv’ style, and left it to Scarlett to drive her own way around and flirt her way to get the men on board. Allowing an element of chance and uncertainty into your work process is always risky business, especially when your movie has one of the biggest names in Hollywood right now as the lead actress. Now that takes balls…

I especially like the scene where the camera does a random people-watching sequence on the streets of Glasgow. It ‘sits’ us right next to the alien and it feels like we are hunting for the next prey, together. At the same time, it resembles the viewpoint of an outsider looking in, which is probably how Scarlett must be feeling, in real life or in character. (She’s a pretty good flirt by the way..)

Fancy a swim in the void?

The framing of the scenes are impeccable. They managed to capture the gritty, dangerous and claustrophobic city life, and juxtapose it next to Scotland’s vast and breathtaking landscapes. And coming from a background in directing music videos, Jonathan probably couldn’t resist throwing in the edgy, graphic treatment into the mix for good measure. Most noticeably at the beginning of the film, during the ‘birth’ of the alien when the background is completely stark white, and in all the kill scenes, where the victims get swallowed up by a mass of black beneath them. Beautiful.

Like us humans, it seems that no alien is an island too. Scarlett’s character seems to have some sort of a telepathic partnership with a nameless motorbike rider, who conveniently shows up to clean up after her each time she messes up. We are not told explicitly who he is, or how he is related to her, but one can probably make an intelligent guess and approximate their own conclusions.

The turning point in the film happens when Scarlett’s character picks up a very special passenger and actually makes a ‘human’ connection with him. She lures him into the black void like all the others, but changes her mind at the last minute and let him go free. And as mentioned before, whenever she messes up, Mr. Mystery Motorbiker will appear to clean it up. So for the first time, we see the two nameless characters face to face in the same room. Even though there were no words spoken, they could both sense a significant shift has taken place within her.

Oh what soft skin you have!

So from here on, she takes great pains to escape from his radar and hide amongst Scotland’s common folks. She learns more about human behaviours, human kindness, cakes and of course, sex. There’s a scene where she gets a shock to find a hole between her legs and shines a bedside lamp on it. i know its supposed to be dark humour, but I just didnt buy it. I find the pacing too rushed and disjointed, and its never a good idea to introduce a joke while the audience is still trying to piece together the various sequences prior to it. It just feels like a punchline delivered at the wrong time. Or maybe its just me. I just dont find it convincing.

I liked the ending though. I think its a very plausible and believable conclusion, and its a good reminder of how much of a monster we can all be, even when we dont know it ourselves. After all, humans can be scarier than anything else out there. Its also a nice transition to see the alien change roles from being the hunter to being the hunted. But again, my complain is that it feels too abrupt and too rushed towards the end. Its almost as if he ended the story midway through the buildup. Or maybe I just didnt want it to end so soon. Who knows.

Under The Skin is still a very very good movie in my opinion. The strengths of the films far outweigh the fussy complains that I mentioned. Yes it could be just the case of me nitpicking. Go watch it for yourself and let me know. And besides, watching Scarlett Johansson in full glory with all her baby fats, big hips and various other flaws intact is an absolute treat, she is drop dead gorgeous just the way she is!

Hello Gorgeous…

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About The Author

As a child, Topo Sanchez filled his little head with the great mysteries of UFOs, Bigfoots and bearded women as bedtime stories. His first revelation came about while watching El Topo, when he realized that two freaks became normal if they combined. So he figured if three combined, they would be superheroes (hence the birth of SCUM). His first words to his mom were 'Klaatu Barada Nikto!'

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