The Horror Honeys: It'll Get Under Yours...

It'll Get Under Yours...

A Sci-Fi Honey Review by Katie

Under the Skin (2014)

The only opinions I’d heard about Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 horror/sci-fi/drama hybrid Under the Skin before pressing play on my DVD player this week were not necessarily whether anyone actually liked or disliked the film – only that they desperately needed to talk about it.  What is it about this film, I wondered, that has people ruminating on the overarching meaning of its content and how it made them feel for long after the credits had rolled?  My expectation was that it would be overly complicated or difficult to watch due to extremely graphic content; in spite of this, what I came out with on the other side was much different.  Though it gets its title as a loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, “Under the Skin” is an apt way to describe a film that you will absorb and carry with you after the experience is over.

The very beginning of the film is so achingly slow and nonconcrete – beams of light, abstract shapes materializing and colliding, speech forming, a deliberately paced fade to black – that Glazer immediately sets the tone for what is likely to follow, and fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are sure to pick up on the vibe.  Scarlett Johansson plays a hopelessly gorgeous and nameless being who drives through the streets of Scotland seeking unattached and aimless men who are too stupefied by her beauty to have better sense than to climb aboard a perfect stranger’s pedo-van.  Glazer filmed these early scenes using a hidden camera in the dashboard of the vehicle, highlighting the film’s clever employ of non-actors as well as how disturbingly easy it is for Scarlett Johansson to kidnap real unsuspecting men just by pouting her lips and offering a ride (!!).  It soon becomes clear that her intentions are deceitful, and these hapless men are assuredly victims of some horrible unseen death.

Sci-Fi Honey Public Service Announcement: 
do not accept rides from gorgeous aliens.
The audience will wait a long time before learning what happens to the kidnap victims and why they are being collected, but even then, the film offers no clear “answers.”  The only explanations brought forth here are done so with images, many of which are both haunting and moving: impossible and almost theatrical starkly black or white spaces, a liquid obsidian floor, a wraithlike mist, a raging sea, a malevolent forest.  Scarlett Johansson navigates these scenes with a kind of dramatic subtlety not seen since her performance in Lost in Translation; an eventual self-examination of her human form is a beautifully transformative sequence.  The second half of the film turns her predatory nature on its head, and as she learns to empathize with the human condition, we share in her struggle to come to terms with who she really is versus who she longs to become.  I’ll admit that not since E.T. have I been so attached to the emotional journey of an otherworldly creature.

Although, Scarlett is much easier on the eyes.

While Scarlett is a worthy and complex central figure for the film, Under the Skin has a lot more going for it than just a brave lead performance.  The music, by British composer Mica Levi, is a space-y, symphonic cacophony of strings and pulsating synth reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s tension-ridden Alien score.  Coupled with the film’s gorgeous visual palette, the score elevates the overall atmosphere to an operatic plane.  One scene, shot underwater, is a serene yet terrifying ballet of death.  Glazer has an extensive directorial background in music videos, which lends itself well to this surrealistic quality of filmmaking.  He may even be a contemporary in weirdness to the great David Lynch, who also shoots his films like moving art exhibits set to a dreamlike score.  Glazer’s take on The Elephant Man even makes an appearance in Under the Skin, much to my happy yet confused-as-hell surprise. 

Aww, they make a cute couple.
Fans of the genre should see Under the Skin, but with the understanding that it will likely be the most challenging film you’ll see this year.  The film is so abstract that you could fashion a unique emotional interpretation of virtually every scene, specific only to you; ask a hundred people to decipher a character’s motives and impulses or the meaning of a certain moment, and you may get a hundred different answers.  Glazer likes to let a shot linger for longer than necessary, or longer than the eye is used to before a cut is warranted, giving it a languid and moody style, like a freeform poem or a bewildering nightmare.  Couple this with the film’s tendency to present situations without explicit meaning or explanation, and some easily bored viewers may dismiss this as frustratingly vacant and vague art-school nonsense.  Under the Skin may be dripping with style, but for me it is not without substance – which makes it a wholly worthwhile cinematic experience.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Four beautiful WTF’s out of five

Under the Skin is available on Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Netflix DVD, YouTube VOD, and blu-ray/DVD