Film, Science Fiction

Film: Under the Skin

July 17, 2014

The degree to which you enjoy Under the Skin (2013) will probably depend largely on how much you enjoy experimental, arthouse “what-the-hell-is-going-on-here” movies. Also, you might want to bring a high threshold for being creeped out. Warning: I love this type of thing, and I found it intense, riveting, and rather unsettling.

This film does have a plot, but it’s rather a submerged and inchoate one…it follows a mysterious woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, across the Scottish countryside as she preys on unsuspecting men. What she does to them is deeply disturbing, and speaks to her peculiar condition. But she’s not fully in control of her fate: what she’s doing is a by-product of her nature, and also, perhaps, influenced by the oversight of an equally mysterious biker (Jeremy McWilliams) to whom she’s connected. She seems compelled, or duty-bound, to play her role, but ultimately she goes off the reservation.

Under the Skin is chilling, moody science fiction horror that relies largely on visual story-telling and masterful sound design to create a stark, unforgiving atmosphere. I found it impossible to look away, and not just because of Johansson’s alluring performance. The cinematography is impressive, from the landscapes to the set designs to the utterly unnerving visual effects, and the film quietly lets the action and imagery unravel the film’s mysteries; the dialogue, much of it improvised and heavily accented, is almost incidental. It makes for something of a visual puzzle, then, but it’s enhanced immeasurably by the audio: even the most static, mundane scenes are given tension by the sound and music, leveraged like weapons against the viewer.

As for the narrative itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Sometimes the film seems fraught with hidden meanings and metaphors, but in the end, it seems a simple SFnal story, its mechanics rendered mostly explicit. I didn’t actually care to fully decipher it, though, too caught up in its fascinating moments and dazzling techniques. Director Jonathan Glazer has created a cult masterpiece, here, in the offbeat vein of David Lynch or Nicolas Roeg. I loved it.

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  • Tracie W July 17, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    I enjoyed this film immensely. The slow, tense pace of the film is hypnotic. It’s based on a book by Michael Faber, and I bought the book right after I saw the film. TBR.

    The film is disturbing and could confuse some viewers, certainly. I went to this film alone, a rare treat, and I couldn’t stop talking about it to other people afterward. I’m glad you saw it, if for no other reason than I now have someone else with whom I can discuss it!

    • Chris East July 17, 2014 at 11:10 pm

      I so regret not seeing this in the theater. I had a weekend to myself when it was playing and was going to go, but came down sick. I think the imagery and sound would have been so much more intense at the Arclight (and without my freaking air-conditioning turning on and off…)

      Look forward to exchanging thoughts with you on this one soon!