Under the Skin is a science fiction film by Jonathan Glazer based upon the novel of the same name by Michael Faber. It stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman who prowls the streets of Edinburgh picking up men. She lures them into her van, on the pretense of a sexual liaison, but they meet a much less pleasant fate. I can’t say much more about the plot without getting into spoilers, and I don’t want to spoil the film if you haven’t seen it, however there may be some minor spoilers ahead.
Under the Skin is almost an experimental film. Some of the movie is shot in a hidden camera documentary style. The men that Johansson (her character is never named) picks up, in some cases, are not professional actors and the scenes are improvised. However, it’s difficult to tell which scenes are improvised and which are scripted. The experience is very consistent throughout. The dialogue feels authentic, and slightly awkward. The situations are quite awkward. The men seem mostly confused by Johansson’s overt advances. A lesser film would have portrayed the men as stereotypes, aggressively seeking sex, such that we feel less sympathy for them when the role of predator is reversed. But that doesn’t happen here. There’s much more subtlety. The novel, which I’ve also read, is even more subtle because the reader is privy to the character’s internal monologues. However, it’s impressive that the film manages a similar effect given its economy of dialogue.
This brings me to another point: this film is almost entirely visual. There is very little dialogue and none of it is exposition. The story is revealed to the audience slowly and requires intellectual effort on their part. The film’s pacing is very methodical. The central character’s motivations remain ambiguous. There’s no wasted dialogue or wasted scenes. Everything that happens contributes to developing character or advancing the story. Such economy is rare in movies these days, but I greatly appreciate it in this film.
There’s also an art imitating life dimension to the film. In the movie, Scarlett Johannson’s character is traveling a strange, dare I say alien, landscape and interacting with people who don’t recognize her for who she is. In shooting the film, Scarlett Johansson was ‘undercover’ as it were, in a place the Hollywood A-list doesn’t frequent, interacting with people who didn’t recognize her. I wonder if there is a commentary here, intentional or otherwise, about the nature of celebrity. Famous people are just like the rest of us ‘under the skin’ as it were. If intentional, this is a dimension of interpretation that the film adds to the book. In the novel, the character does not look like Scarlett Johansson; she is not necessarily even attractive. So initially I worried that Johansson might have been miscast. However, she is outstanding in the role and her casting, especially given the subtext of the film, is a stroke of genius. And, like most men, I confess that the prospect of seeing skin in Under the Skin piqued my interest. By the way, if you’re uncomfortable with full frontal nudity (male and female) this is not the movie for you. However, the nudity is not gratuitous and Under the Skin avoids becoming an exploitation film. Again, a lesser film could have easily crossed into that territory.
Under the Skin is ultimately a study in contrasts. It combines the candid camera-style documentary footage with sparing use of impressive visual effects. It combines professional actors and unsuspecting passersby with seamless consistency. It combines mundane settings with otherworldly horror. Its narrative style reminded me of The Twilight Zone. In fact, I would love to see a shortened, monochromatic fan edit with an intro by Rod Serling, or a reasonable facsimile. Under the Skin is a welcome return to the more deliberate, more cerebral science fiction film-making of the past. And for that, I appreciate it.
The ending is sure to divide audiences. Moviegoers booed when it was first screened at film festivals. However, for me, the ending works. Perhaps reading the book prepared me for it. I remember thinking that the novel ended on an anticlimactic note, and perhaps audiences will feel the same way about the conclusion of the movie. Upon reflection, however, I realized that there was no other satisfying way to end it. Arguably, the film does an even better job than the book in capturing the irony of the ending. Suffice it to say, you’ll understand why it’s called Under the Skin.
I would recommend this movie to science fiction fans. I think it’s even a good movie to introduce non-science fiction fans to the genre. In a summer of loud blockbusters, this is a quieter film that audiences might overlook. It’s playing in limited release, but it’s well worth seeking out.