by Matt J. Popham
It’s not surprising to me that so many people were puzzled or put off by Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. It’s the kind of film that asks questions without answering them. The kind of film that explores ideas without spoonfeeding them. The kind of film whose syntax is almost entirely visual, but not conspicuously adrenalized or flashy. In short, it’s the kind of film we’re always asking for, right up until we get it. The kind of film we’d love if it had been made thirty years ago by an undisputed master, but have little patience for at today’s multiplex. A haunting, hypnotic meditation on appearances (and disappearances), identity, and sensuality, it’s an easy film to get lost in and, at times, a difficult one to find your way through. There are even moments where Under the Skin seems to get a little lost in itself. But, in a way, that’s entirely appropriate.
Liberally adapted by Glazer and Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s surrealist novel, Under the Skin follows an extra-terrestrial predator in human guise (Scarlett Johansson) as she roams the Scottish countryside, seductively luring men back to an abandoned cottage where she captures and consumes them. If that logline brings to mind images of B-grade, sci-fi sexploitation, just remember that, “a crew of astronauts seeking intelligent life near Jupiter are systematically killed off by their ship’s computer,” doesn’t really capture the essence of 2001, either. Under the Skin, in fact, might best be described as a more corporeal and down-to-earth Space Odyssey. Quiet, slow-moving, and coldly analytical, the film, no doubt, frustrated a number of moviegoers, who, upon hearing the phrase, “nude Scarlett Johansson,” foolishly rushed in expecting a bit of arty, otherworldly erotica, only to find themselves confronted with an altogether different kind of skin-flick.
Johansson appears nude twice in the film – once at the beginning and, again, towards the end – and it’s revealing that, both times, we view her body through her character’s eyes. It is her gaze, in fact, that dominates Under the Skin, and its evolution is the film’s true narrative subject. Glazer’s camera expertly mirrors her perspective, throughout, surveying life on earth with a detached, alien remove. As Johansson’s alien stalks her prey in the film’s first half, we view our world from a distance, observing the surfaces of things, the dull rhythms of physical motion, the curious collage of human civilization. We learn nothing of the men she hunts, or their lives before she encounters them. We regard humanity with the same disinterest she does. Even the sparse dialogue is largely insignificant, often so low in the sound mix as to be nearly inaudible. What’s important is the repeated, mechanical, at times, almost abstract visual ballet of stalk, seduce, and slaughter, as men appear in her field of vision, become entranced by her beauty, and disappear into darkness.
In this respect, Under the Skin is as much a solo actor’s showcase as Gravity or All is Lost, and Johansson performs admirably. Having spent the last few years hopelessly miscast as Marvel’s Black Widow, Under the Skin’s maneater proves a much better fit for her natural abilities. For all her voluptuous shapeliness, Johansson is a cold presence on screen. Her detachment is not sly or ironic, but dispassionate, bordering on apathetic. Her curves may be inviting, but something in her demeanor suggests a disdainful, calculating hardness that too few filmmakers seem willing to exploit. Too often cast in roles at odds with her icy reserve, when she is asked to play wounded, girlish, sex kitten-ish, or some ill-conceived combination thereof, the results can feel painfully forced or fall embarrassingly flat. But here, when her face breaks into a bright and sunny beam, or her throaty voice inflects a warm vulnerability, it’s always as a ruse masking malicious intent. The brittleness becomes part of the performance, and is made all the more terrifying by the graceful ease with which her affect freezes over the instant she has dispensed with her prospective prey. Staring dully through her windshield at the Scottish countryside, idly contemplating the creatures that ebb and flow around her, she effectively conveys a superior, and slightly bored, alien intelligence musing on whether there might be more to life than this.
And it’s just at the point when we find ourselves wondering the same thing that an abortive attempt to ensnare a man suffering from neurofibromatosis – a potentially mawkish encounter made poignant by Glazer’s unsentimental restraint – alters our alien’s perspective. Suddenly aware that the skin she hides behind has potential – and a potential significance – beyond mere mimicry, she sets out to explore the possibilities of living life within it and through it, gradually incorporating it into her sense of self. And it is here that Johansson’s performance shifts from good to great. It’s a testament to both her and Glazer that our alien predator does not become more human, or even more sympathetic to humans. She’s just more curious about the possibilities of human sensuality. Subtly shading her remove with a newfound feral innocence, Johansson’s alien is no longer scanning the pedestrian world with patience and purpose, but wandering through it – in it, but not of it – lost and alone. The second time she studies her own naked form, it is not a methodical, utilitarian assessment –as with the first time we see her – but a curious, invested examination, reminiscent of a prospective homeowner. It’s an affecting, almost tender moment, as we realize she is becoming attached. Not to this planet or its inhabitants, but to this new aspect of herself. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in that moment that she ceases to be a danger to human existence and humanity becomes a threat to hers.
Exasperatedly unable to grasp its meaning, many critics have described Under the Skin as impenetrable. In a way, it is. And, in a way, it should be. It’s a film in which we watch nearly every character on screen lose themselves in the superficial. And what could be more superficial than a two-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional world? Yet every day we find meaning in these projections, if we care to look. It’s not that Glazer is so trite or clichéd as to be prosaically warning us against surface fixations. Rather, he seems to be suggesting that there might be more to surface, itself, than meets the eye. Under the Skin’s elusive, illusory style and poetic structure pass over the surfaces of its narrative events, leaving us groping for their significance. What we might miss is that, in this case, the surface is the significance. By presenting us with an alien’s external view of humanity, Under the Skin hauntingly reveals the ways in which the superficial can shape our identity and direct our lives. And by allowing us to share in our alien’s exploration and tragic embrace of her outer appearance, Glazer and Johansson show us just how deep skin deep can be.