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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review: Under the Skin

Have you ever seen a film that starts out with an incredible statement of purpose? The film begins in a bold manner, and is strikingly inventive enough for you to say: I'm not quite so sure I've ever seen anything like this before. Just when you think, this is a story that's ready to ratchet itself into some form of stunning catharsis, the film then takes a radical, somewhat unearned left turn and the rest of the on-screen become mired in malaise, never to recover beyond a faint glimmer of hope. If you've experienced this before, chances are you'll probably dislike Under the Skin, and if you haven't, chances are you'll probably REALLY dislike Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's first full length film since the 2004 critical bomb Birth, has a premise that on its surface is a unique take on the science fiction film, owing a good deal to Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth crossed with a sense of eerie dread found in the best of Lovecraftian style fiction. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien wearing the skin of a human female under the auspices of a group of aliens who appear as motorcyclists. Her goal is simple: lure unsuspecting men to a remote building where they will become prey for the needs of her kind (it's assumed that they're used as food stuffs of a sort, with their flesh being harvested). After an encounter with a male who falls more on the sexually inexperienced side, our central figure begins to realize that she may identify more with her prey than she initially thought, setting the stage for a few conflicts that arise in Under the Skin's latter third.

The joke is easy to make, but indeed, Johansson is playing a different type of "Black Widow" here. And in the opening act, quiet and with very little narration, we see her alien travel across Scotland attempting to pick up victims from her van. For these conquests, Glazer and his team installed hidden cameras in the van and instructed Johansson to pick up non-actors in an attempt to get them in the vehicle with her. Once she succeeded, these gentlemen were then told what the project was about. It's a nice experimental angle to tie the early goings of the film to, and to see Johansson be able to hold together a coldly, detached alien characterization in such a difficult circumstance is admirable. Even better though, are the scripted passages in this same segment of the film, where Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin pepper the film with some truly terrifying moments, such as a scene when our alien seductress drags a man off the beach and leaves a crying toddler behind, all alone. 

Landin is, by far, the film's MVP; with an extraordinary grasp of contrasting colors, dark shimmering surfaces and bright white rooms. Much like The Fountain and Moon, often the best looking sci-fi is credit to the person providing the lighting and shot compositions. Perhaps his key moment with the camera is when we discover what fate befalls these gentlemen victims when they submerge underneath the inky black surface that Johansson's hunter tempts them towards. One particular victim that we follow finds himself submerged in the thick, viscous fluid, bathed in cold, blue light and in his final moments comes face to face with another of his kind, a body that pops like a balloon. It's chill-inducing what Glazer and his team are able to produce with the sparest of environs.

The shame of it all is, the film loses its way once the script attempts to find a way to humanize the alien. This is when the overriding silence of the narrative turns from a significant artistic choice into pacing problems. When our central figure decides to run away from her nightly ritual, her robotic presence lacks purpose and while there could be significant thematic meaning in that plot development, it does not make for pleasurable viewing. Glazer's long shots become a chore to sit through, and for much of the second half of the film I found my mind wandering to anything that wasn't the movie. This is problematic, particularly for a film that demands close attention to its visuals in exchange for intellectual coherency. Instead Under the Skin settles for monotony in its final hour, with only the barest of plot to hold it all together. It chimes back to life in its final scenes, where the hunter fully becomes the hunted in a twist on the film's earlier plot strands, but it feels more like a "hail mary pass" than any kind of natural narrative extension. 

Under the Skin, less under my skin and more on my nerves. I give it a C.
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