UNDER THE SKIN Review: The Strong, Silent Type
When I was a kid, my love of classic movies extended to other classic entertainment, too – from reruns of old TV shows to recordings of anything Frank Sinatra ever crooned. With the cassette boom, classic radio shows quickly found their way into my growing multimedia collection, and the first tape I ever bought for myself was The War of the Worlds: the science fiction tale adapted from the H.G. Wells novel and performed by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air players in 1938.
What struck me about the broadcast – and still strikes me, really – is the effectiveness of the program despite the simplicity of the presentation. With only a strong lead, a handful of supporting performers, and simple but clever effects, the sci-fi classic grabbed me by the lapels and held me until the end. It still does.
Sci-fi has come a long way since that show originally aired 75+ years ago – not just in medium but in technology – and big-budget special effects are now the norm. Not so with Under the Skin, a cerebral sci-fi film that harkens back to radio show days, featuring a strong lead, a handful of supporting performers, and simple special effects.
Oh yeah … it grabs me by my lapels, too.
Scarlett Johansson is the strong lead here. She plays a mysterious woman of otherworldly origins who, after assuming the characteristics of another girl (also Johansson), methodically hunts men in Glasgow, Scotland. She drives around in a white van, getting the men’s attention by asking for directions, quickly pivoting to flirtatious small talk which includes key questions to ensure they are unattached and not expected to be anywhere or with anyone. Once she finds a man “alone enough,” she brings him back to her place. He is not seen nor heard from again. She repeats this process until she meets a disfigured man (Adam Pearson) who changes her, and the goal of her actions refocuses from future victims to herself.
With three exceptions – the first five minutes, her victims’ demise, and the last five minutes – Under the Skin is about as non-science fiction as a film can get. Still, those three things are glorious science fiction and really something to behold. The film’s open, which suggests Johansson’s character is created (not born), is an artistic exercise in sharps becoming smooth and contrasting lights and darks coming together in harmony, culminating in what looks like a glossy black object traveling through a bright white circular birth canal. Mica Levi‘s frenetic, scratching violin strings underscore the magnitude of the moment, while a low industrial hum suggests it is anything but organic.
As for her victims, they sink into the shiny black floor in Johansson’s character’s “home” (for lack of a better term, because it isn’t always the same place and because “lair” sounds too melodramatic … see the trailer for a taste). But even when sinking, the men never stop their forward progress. The scenes are stunning – shot in total black save Johansson, her victims, and the articles of clothing that each slowly removes. Johansson seduces them so totally that as she walks backwards, maintaining eye contact and watching as each walks towards her, the men slowly sink into the liquid abyss, all without ever slowing or panicking or taking their eyes off her.
If it sounds like I’m being vague, I apologize. There is little grey area here; either I’m vague or I spoil too much, and I’d rather you discover this for yourself … which is why I won’t even touch the ending, other than to say it answers at least one question and it is completely satisfying.
Writer/director Jonathan Glazer, making only his third film in 14 years (after 2000’s Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth), co-writes with Walter Campbell, based on the novel by Michel Faber, a script that is efficient in plot, dialogue, and character. (That said, checking in at 108 minutes means Glazer like to linger in places, which is perfectly fine by me). The plot is fairly simple for the first half of the film – Johansson lures men to their demise. But no sooner does she snare one, she’s back out doing it again. There is no infiltration plan or assimilation strategy – it’s flirt, strip, sink. Lather, rinse, repeat.
She is aided only by a “man” played by Jeremy McWilliams. He is a mysterious, motorcycle-riding manager/watcher of Johansson, who first gets her set-up in her current form, then acts as something of a cleaner if there are any loose ends (like a victim’s article of clothing), then keeps an eye on her and her efforts. He doesn’t say a word. They are both machines in that they have one purpose and they are designed to be activated, execute that one thing, and never stop doing so. (There is a chilling scene involving a child in peril, and it cuts through you how Johansson and McWilliams handle the situation.)
The second half, while just as lean and with far less dialogue than the first half, becomes a little more complicated when Johansson’s otherworldly being loses focus on the task and shows a primal curiosity about what it’s like to be human. While a solid performance by the actress in the first half is important, it is critical in the second half, and in that second half, Johansson is transcendent. With nothing but facial and physical expressions, from audacious to so nuanced as to almost not be, Johansson gradually transforms from flirtatious seductress to conflicted alien to a being with an identity crisis. That performance also brings with it the transformation from villain to curiosity to sympathetic anti-hero.
Physically, Johansson leaves any trace of glamour back on the set of the latest Avengers movie. While still beautiful (it is ScarJo, after all), she looks more like someone you might see in your local supermarket: average height, average hair, and average build. That last one – average build – is even more remarkable when you consider she appears fully nude in the film. And it’s not a blink-and-you-miss-it scene; the alien looks in the mirror at the human form she has taken, studies it, wonders about why it is the way it is. And you study it with her. This shows the great confidence that Johansson has in herself as an actress and as a brand. How many other A-list actresses working today would bare so much?
This is a wonderful companion performance to Johansson’s sparkling work in 2013’s Her, where she was all voice and dialogue with no physicality whatsoever.
At the end of a creer, any actress would be considered amazing to have had one of these performances in her career. Johansson has both … at age 29.
Like Welles’ The War of the Worlds and other iconic science fiction entertainment offerings – from films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Matrix to TV shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who – Under the Skin is a seminal entry in the genre. Like those iconic entries, this film sets a new standard of excellence in the genre. And like those iconic entries, this film will be talked about for decades to come.