Under the Skin (2013)

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*. Overrated?
*. That’s a judgment that needs to be unpacked a bit. Under the Skin didn’t find much of an audience when it came out, and hasn’t found much more of one yet. It does have a passionate fan base who consider it to be one of the best movies ever made, and this may ripen in time into a cult following, but that’s not what’s meant by overrated either. Overrated means overrated by critics, a large number of whom put this on their “best of 2014” lists, and many of whom named it their film of the year.
*. I’d call it overrated, but understandably so. There’s an audience out there — not a large one but significant — that is so hungry for something, anything, a bit different from the usual generic crap they tend to go crazy over stuff like this. Because whatever else you want to say about Under the Skin, an erotic SF horror film with odd special effects and almost no dialogue (or, for that matter, explanation of the plot) is at least something different.
*. But is it really that different? Writer-director Jonathan Glazer is probably best known for Sexy Beast, another movie I thought overrated. Both movies are genre flicks with a twist. But how much of a twist? Sexy Beast seemed to me to be just another conventional heist picture: the retired gangster getting pulled back in for one more score. Michael Mann, anyone?
*. Here, despite the fact that there’s little explanation of what is going on, the story is similarly clichéd. Scarlett Johansson is a zaftig sister from another planet who slowly becomes humanized, learning empathy the more she interacts with the natives. If you follow SF at all you’ll be very familiar with such a plot.
*. Perhaps the biggest twist is that we aren’t told what is happening. The dialogue for this film would probably fit on three or four pages. It’s a very quiet, very slow film, which in itself was probably enough to set it apart and make critics sit up and take notice.
*. And I like the mystery. It can be a thin line between ambiguity and obscurity, but I think Frazer stays on the right side. That reticence also fits with the cinéma vérité style, the camera as fly on the wall following the characters around. Would the aliens feel any need to explain themselves, even if they did communicate through some process of vocalization? Of course not.
*. I have a hunch that I wouldn’t care much for any explanation of what Johansson (the Female) and her biker partner (the Bad Man) are up to. Her victims are being turned into a slurry presumably as some kind of energy source, unless it’s just being flushed and the skin is the only thing worth preserving. Whatever. I have to confess this part made me think of Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
*. For what it’s worth, in Michael Faber’s novel she’s selling the meat to the folks back home.
*. Other elements that stand out are the eerie,  catgut-and-fingernails-down-a-chalkboard score by Mica Levi and the overall look of the film, especially its juxtaposition of a street documentary style, romantic natural settings, and the highly stylized scenes set on board the alien ship. Once again we see how visually impressive you can be without a huge budget but just a bit of imagination.
*. I don’t know what to finally make of Johnasson’s performance. She was given little to work with. I’m not sure she even knew what her character was, or her/its motivation. But I wonder if the role was a huge stretch. A beautiful woman is a kind of alien, perhaps even to herself.
*. That said, I was surprised at how clueless she seemed to be about human physiology. How could she not know the effect of trying to eat Earth food, or anything about sex? It also disturbed me how easily she was disposed of by a single horny woodsman. Was she drugging her victims with pheromones?
*. I guess they were going for a Goth-girl look for her, which had me thinking of how Clara Bow hooked up with Bela Lugosi after Dracula, leading to “vampire and the vamp” headlines. What we have here is the vamp on the prowl.

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*. Thank heavens for subtitles. I couldn’t make out half of these Scots accents.
*. Where I thought things might get more interesting was with the female serial killer tracking down her lonely male victims and picking them up in her (white) rape van. But sadly nothing much is done with the sociology or psychology of this (are the victims drugged, or willingly offering themselves up to this intergalactic honey trap?). Alas, the unhappily single guy remains a mostly undiscovered territory in serious pop culture. None of the victims become characters except for the disfigured fellow, and despite a standout performance from Adam Pearson I kept wondering why he wasn’t asking Johansson how much this was going to cost him. His character must have been thinking he was being taken for a john.
*. The disco (or electronic funky-circus dance club) has provided a symbol of alienation for quite a while now, hasn’t it? It’s become a convention to see someone who is Very Serious walking with oblivious determination through all the flickering coloured lights.
*. Why have the aliens come to Scotland? There’s a suggestion of a connection to the migrant workers the Female meets, and the Czech swimmer who is there just to get away from it all and “because it’s nowhere.” Perhaps the aliens are lonely and disillusioned too. Only the Female seems a social animal.
*. It is a daring movie. Eschewing exposition doesn’t make you a lot of friends. And the morality is another strike against broad popular acceptance: the way the good and the innocent are slaughtered while the two vicious types we meet (the Bad Man on the motorcycle and the rapist woodsman) are the survivors.
*. A movie as blank as this leaves a lot unsaid. I think the people who like it the most are the ones who read the most into it. Most of their interpretations, however, seem questionable to me. I suspect there’s less going on here than meets the eye.
*. Perhaps I’ve just developed a knee-jerk reaction against movies that are so visually rich but underwritten, with little character development or drama. About half-way through this one I was starting to wonder what the point was.
*. The usual line about SF movies like this is that the perspective of a “man from Mars” provides a way of seeing humanity that is less prejudiced and culturally embedded, more “objective.” But instead of that, what this film highlighted, at least for me, was how alien all of us are, how separated and insulated from one another. The Female sees us with all-too-human eyes. In her world, as in ours, the erotic is not an emotion, and beauty is not profundity. Our altruism gets us nowhere and as a species we are nasty little insects who will sting anyone who gets too close. In feeling empathy, the Female has caught a social disease. She should have known better.

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