Under the Skin Video review: Sci-Fi at its Worst

Under the Skin  (2013)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
A24 Films
108 minutes, R (nudity)

Scar Jo gets under our skin--in a bad way
Movies can be narrative stories and they can be montages of visually stimulation. The great ones are usually both. A story within a pedestrian frame begs the question of why we shouldn't just curl up with a book. Images without a narrative is even trickier. Unless there's something filmic in the production–some intriguing point of view or a way to convey drama in a new way, for instance–the movie is little more than a mechanical flipbook. Alas, that's the sin of which Under the Skin is guilty.

The film dazzles with its dark exteriors and interiors, its relentless moodiness, and with Scarlett Johansson's first movie nude scenes. I recall a few years back that some magazines were offering her seven figures to reveal hers. She should have taken the money as her secret is out now and she's not going to collect residuals on this turkey. A few art house critics praised Ms. Johansson's performance as bold and mesmerizing, and she even copped a few award nominations–mostly at festivals you've never heard of in places you wouldn't wish to go. But despite praise from those critics prone to love all things postmodern, Under the Skin failed to recoup its paltry $13 million budget. It is all surfaces and no story–lots of atmosphere and imagery in service of nothing whatsoever. All of this is to say if you sole motive for considering this film is to see Scar Jo in the all-together, try Google images instead.

Johansson, credited simply as "the woman," spends most of the film driving a van around Scotland–Glasgow mainly, though I recognized a few locations in Orkney and East Lothian. She entices unattached men into the van and lures them to her apartment where they think they're about to hit the roly-poly jackpot, but as they walk toward her undressed body they slowly sink into an inky dark pool. They don't drown, but eventually their bodies exit and leave just the skins behind. Okay, so we've got a bit of sci-fi, but what is Scar Jo? A mutant? A replicant? An alien? A vampire? A symbiant? Don't wait for the film to enlighten you. Nor will it tell you why a motorcyclist sometimes seems to help her and at other times seems to be stalking her. Or why she decides to free a disfigured man (Adam Pearson), or why she actually makes love with another man only to jump out of bed, stare at her vagina, and flee. For what is she searching? Her vacant eyes and flat affect suggest a search for awareness–as if she is trying to figure out and emulate human behavior, but we don't know why. Nor do we learn anything when she sheds her Scar Jo skin to reveal a jet-black featureless being inside.

Other basic questions left unanswered include: Where does she get gas money? Who pays the rent on the pad with the licorice pool? If Scar Jo is so unaware, how can she navigate and drive? Why would a being that leaves a baby on a beach and shows no evidence of any sort of compassion suddenly free a deformed man? What the hell does anything in this film mean?

I run into lots of people who tell me they hate science fiction. I tell them that good sci-fi builds alternative universes and worldviews that make us contemplate the meanings of our own. Alas, Under the Skin is sci-fi at its incomprehensible worst. It has neither rhyme nor meter–­it's a meandering trip to nowhere that gives us no insight into who "the woman" (and presumably the motorcyclist) are, what they want, what they think, how they live, or what they believe. One must ultimately conclude that Johansson's nudity is gratuitous in that it serves neither plot nor character. In fact, her body is the only thing that is revealed in Under the Skin. Yes, both she and the other images look good, but if all you want is a series of stunning moving visuals, rent Koyaanisqatsi.-- Rob Weir

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You were expecting something the film did not set out to provide: simple explanations. So, work it out or leave it alone. Unwise to suggest others don't check it out.