Overview: A young, beautiful women stalks the streets of Scotland, looking for lonely men. StudioCanal; 2014; Rated R; 108 Minutes.
The Alien: It makes sense that if aliens were to develop a prototype of exemplary human temptation, they would build Scarlett Johansson. But this isn’t Species, and Johansson brings way more to the role than just constant visual pleasure (she does bring that, though). Johansson is measured, patient, and bold in the central unnamed role of this film. She employs reactive brilliance and expressive beauty to completely sell her role as a consciousness new to human skin learning the human condition (think a more menacing version of Brad Pitt’s Joe Black).
The Alien’s Narrative Function: Any time a narrative sends a central alien character, in either sense of the adjective, to observe our culture or planet (think Stranger in a Strange Land, Wings of Desire, K-Pax, Borat), it’s easy to predict that the motive of the author is to flip our perspective, to make us view ourselves as the aliens. Predictably, Under the Skin attempts to do just that. For most of the first half of the movie, the alien is more a sociological instrument than a character, showing us the loneliness in our often inane daily lives. From an intelligently applied distance we see masses at the mall, dull eyed patrons staring at ATMs, and a herd of 20-somethings mindlessly indulging the club scene. But, the movie wastes these stretches by utilizing them for no conclusive purpose. And the alien herself isn’t that interested in observing the loneliness; she’s here to hunt and consume the loneliness. And that’s where the movie finds its strength.
The Alien’s Hunt: This movie has four sequences that are absolutely nightmarish– two nightmarish in the David Lynch sense and two nightmarish in the Clive Barker sense, both equally jarring. These scenes are all individually as spectacular as I expect to see this year and I refuse to give any descriptive detail about the material, as to not soften the impact for readers. Positioned around those scenes, unfortunately, are some of the most uneventful and, flatly stated, boring stretches of film I expect to see this year. Director Jonathan Glazer and his team seem to have intentionally devoted entire chunks of the story to putting viewers to sleep. I don’t feel like that’s overstatement; the entire movie showcases sound-editing that one might expect to find on a yoga relaxation album: white noise, a near complete absence of dialogue, and a shrill but unobtrusive string-based score. Glazer seems to delight in playing with tiny light sources within complete darkness and more often than not, shadows and nighttime fill in toward the center of his screen deep enough to make David Fincher ask for a night light. Quite often, what we see on screen is only the vague familiar shape of an object, the silver outline of the human form. It works to give the visual impression of fading consciousness (I literally heard snoring a few rows back).
Overall: Under the Skin works much more effectively in its pursuit of straight sci-fi horror than it does in its attempt at philosophical video text. While there is far more time spent on the latter than the former, the gorgeous horror elements make this a film worth watching.