Under the Skin

Under the Skin was our choice for the Science Fiction Edition of Monday Movie Nights.

The film focuses on a mysterious extraterrestrial played by Scarlett Johansson as she preys on solitary, lonely men in the twilight hours of Scotland.  Like a siren she leads these men to their doom, luring them into a dilapidated house on the edge of town where, entranced by the seductive Johansson, they slowly drop into a black liquid void.  Scarlett Johansson is initially detached in her hunt, showing no emotion outside of the facade used to entrap her victims but her apathy begins to unravel the longer she is exposed to humanity.  After an emotional encounter with a man suffering from neurofibromatosis she breaks free of her predatory life and flees into the Scottish Highlands.

Under the Skin was adapted from a novel over the course of nine years by director Johnathon Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell.  It is a stark, bold experiment in film-making that will infuriate some viewers (it was booed during its first viewing at Cannes) and enchant others.  Opening on a beguiling shot that hearkens back to Kubrick’s 2001, a formless black void slowly transforms into a human eye, the viewer immediately understands that this will not be a simple story.

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There are a number of methods used by Glazer to unbalance the viewer and help create the atmosphere that this film is an alien view of our civilization.  Many of the solitary men who Johansson attempts to pick up are non-professionals.  The van that is used was outfitted with hidden cameras to elicit genuine responses, the subjects were only told they were in a movie after the scene had already been completed.  This realism makes the film feel like a documentary at times which is highlighted by Johansson’s transformation from emotionless hunter to seductress as she approaches these unsuspecting men.  Juxtaposed against these moments of realism though are the scenes where Johansson returns with her prey to the extraterrestrial slaughterhouse.  Filmed with elegant and simple special effects we see the black void environment of the extraterrestrials.  One horrifyingly beautiful scene showcases what happens to the victims after they have been engulfed in the black liquid while still leaving the entire encounter open to interpretation.  Also helping to set the detached tone of the film was the haunting, otherworldly score of Mica Levi.

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Scarlett Johansson is the entire focus of the film and she does a masterful job inhabiting the role of an alien in a strange world.  The use of the hidden camera is a genius move here because world-famous Johansson is hidden in plain site under a black wig and fake fur coat in the same way her extraterrestrial character is hiding in human form.  Her transformation and self discovery is played perfectly and it was a brave choice to play a role that involved so many unscripted scenes with real people.  It was also brave due to the almost-gratuitous amounts of nudity, with one extended nude scene highlighting her characters unfamiliarity with her own skin.

Overall I adored this film.  In an age of paint-by-numbers blockbusters it was a breath of fresh air.  Under the Skin is the perfect example of doing more with less.  It shows that a great science fiction film doesn’t require massive budgets or exotic locations, just a strong story and a passionate filmmaker.

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