It may have been a day early (10/30) but this marks the first explicit Halloween movie showing at Cinema 1544. Kevin wanted to screen the 2013 Scarlett Johansson film Under the Skin (directed by Jonathan Glazer), and while it’s really more of a thriller than a typical Halloween horror film, it seems to fit the bill reasonably well.
To be honest, there’s not a ton of plot to the film, which is going to make the review pretty unsubstantial. Two opening sequences, one in which a digitally-distant Johansson voice struggles to make English sounds set to the imagery of an evolving eye, and a second showing a naked Johannson stripping the clothes off of a dead woman laid out on a featureless white plain serve to establish both the alienness of Johannson’s character and that there are going to be a lot of naked people in this movie. But with these establishing scenes out of the way, we get to the meat of the film, which is this: in vague league with a team of mysterious motorcycle riders, Johannson drives a van about Scotland, picking up lonely men who have nobody to miss them on the pretense of a bit of a tryst.
But, as you might imagine, instead of a tryst, the men lured into her featureless black apartment get trapped in her alien tar pit to be, well, “eaten” if you want to anthropomorphize the operation. We don’t get a terribly good feel for exactly what happens to them, though we do get a shot of a chute of red gelatin to kind of give it a flavor (no, not “cherry”). The featureless interiors add an aura of otherworldiness to the scenes inside the alien house, but in some ways they feel like a cop-out. They must be metaphorical – are we truly to believe that the victims are so intent on their pursuit of a stripping Johansson that they fail to notice that they’re being trapped in a viscous liquid? – but in a lot of ways they feel more like a cheap and eerie technical solution than metaphor.
Johansson picks up victims in the van, she picks up victims at a club, but the true automaton nature of what she is doing really only shines through in a scene at a Scottish seaside. She is in the process of picking up a foreigner who has come to Scotland to spend his time camping on the beach and swimming, when he witnesses a tragedy unfolding a few hundred yards away. A dog has been caught in a rip current; a woman has gone after the dog and been caught; her husband has gone after the woman and also been caught. The swimmer risks his life to drag the husband to safety and collapses exhausted on the beach as the husband ignores the swimmer’s efforts and goes back for his wife. Johansson calmly comes up to the swimmer, bashes his head open with a rock, and drags him off to the tar pits – and all the while the infant son of the now-drowned family sits within reach of the tide, screaming. Johansson pays him no more attention than you or I would pay to a dandelion in a strawberry patch.
It seems as if this pattern could continue indefinitely, but one night Johannson picks up a severely disfigured man (facial neurofibromatosis, says Wikipedia, and yes the actor does suffer from the disease – it’s no mask) and after luring him to the pits, she experiences a bit of empathy. We can’t say exactly what it is that sets her off, but one can presume that she understands the feeling of being imprisoned inside a face that does not fit her. Whatever the reason, she sets the disfigured man free (only to be collected up again by a motorcycle man) and goes AWOL.
She spends an awkward act trying to experience what it is to be human – this includes hating cake, not talking to anybody, and, apparently, discovering that she is smooth. But eventually while wandering a lonely forest, she turns victim herself to a vicious logger and part-time rapist. In the struggle, the logger rips her skin, and from underneath emerges…OH MY GOD!!! KILL IT WITH FIRE!!! …which, thanks to some handy gasoline in his truck, is exactly what he does. The End.
Under the Skin is a difficult film to say the least. There’s very little – you could possibly argue zero – exposition, and this isn’t helped by the lack of dialogue. In fact, outside of a few grunts and a single “yes”, Johansson doesn’t speak at all to anybody in the film who is not a prospective victim. However, with those prospective victims she’s glib as all get-out. It creates a strong sensation, for me mostly in retrospect, of her being programmed specifically to do this one thing – lure victims in for processing.
One thing I totally did not recognize until reading a review or two of the film afterwards is that the dead female at the beginning of the film is also Johansson. I believe that some have interpreted this as suggesting that Johansson has taken over the identity of a dead girl, but I’m pretty sure that when the body was collected, Johansson was driving the van. This isn’t a human victim, this is the previous revision of the man-lure alien. Perhaps the aliens only have one body-mold to make their man-lure. One would guess that the revision which was dead at the beginning of the film might also have gone off the reservation, but ending up dead at the side of the road is probably an occupational hazard in this job.
As a final comment, there have been a ton of mentions of Kubrick in reviews of the film, and it’s not by accident. 2001 is a clear influence on Under The Skin, even down to the overly-long silent black screen to start the movie. The visual effects (not exclusive to the opening “eyeball” scene and the featureless interiors) would seem to derive directly from Kubrick’s experimentation, and the lack of dialogue and vague hinting at a plot do nothing to distance the two films. Obviously they are very different movies, but Under The Skin either does not exist in current form (most likely) or it takes the title as most revolutionary film of the decade (less likely) if 2001 didn’t exist.
Is it good? Yes. And in some ways, no. It’s certainly not perfect, and I don’t think there will be a lot that stands out in a second viewing that didn’t come through in the first, but it just has enough mass to drag you in even if the plot (such as it is) doesn’t really hold up.