Just how much science does science fiction need? Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tells us that sometimes… not much.
The common problem with most science fiction films of late is that they follow an unspoken rule of involving obnoxious laser guns, grotesque aliens (notably with questionable breeding preferences) or whatever effed-up time-travelling nonsense at the expense of a much needed substantial storyline; with hopes of getting away with it. Most of them don’t. Often, the result is a two hour demonstration of how to efficiently waste screen time and popcorn. Over the years, with the rapid advancement in CGI and visual effects, science fiction has been chronically plagued with uninspiring films. Some going as far as bastardizing the very genre itself. So not cool.
However, Kubrick, Spielberg and Cuaron have proven that there is still hope – that putting cinematic clichés and substantial storytelling in a movie is indeed possible. Glazer carries on that torch and takes the genre to an even more unfamiliar ground. Under The Skin follows the story of a femme-fatale (Scarlet Johansson) as she lures each of her unsuspecting male victims into their gooey demise (oops, spoilers). This is basically an alien film without a single “alien-ish” prop in sight. No humungous mother ship, no crawling alien spawns. Nothing. What we’re given instead is a generous amount of Johanssen’s perfect and cunning acting — one of her most important performances, if not her best.
Just like in Her, where the actress is limited to using only her voice, the alien she portrays in Skin is constrained by her juvenile understanding of the human race. The movie is opened by Johansen enunciating basic human phonetics and the rest of the movie is an unfolding revelation on her ordeal of finding her inner humanity. Johanssen is just brilliant — playing a pin-up girl seductress when she approaches her unsuspecting victims and immediately transforms into a blank expression, disconnected and cold, when she’s alone in her van. The gorgeous, black-haired woman with the red lipstick dressed in brown fur-coat is a very welcome addition to the already vast catalogue of on- screen aliens.
Scarlett notably strips down for this film but the nudity doesn’t feel erotic at the very least. Yes, it’s sexy, but in a strange, off kind of way. The enigma of her character grows throughout the film and the bafflement one might have surrounding the very nature of the main character’s cause in the film continues to build with it. There is so much to take here but such little to really understand. A disfigured man and an accomplice on a motorcycle sure are not helping. Don’t even bother to look for answers here because you probably won’t be getting one. It’s a stubborn film. Its cycle of relentless visual seduction and defiance for resolve is both intriguing and frustrating. A film that is certainly not for everyone. It’s a refreshing take on the sci-fi thriller genre. This movie already feels like it is destined to be among the greats and does not shy in its Kubrickian references. Even the intro feels a lot like A Space Odyssey (not coincidence, most likely).
Most people will probably hate it. But if nothing else, Under the Skin is an artistic interpretation of the arduous journey of one’s self-exploration. A masterful study of finding what is looming beneath our skin. Sometimes, the result can be unrewarding and devastating — a similar fate suffered by Johansen’s alien character. And in the rarest cases, what we find can be … well, out of this world.