By Chaz Lipp
I’ve not read Michel Faber’s novel that served as the basis for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, so I’m only speculating here. But I suspect that something more substantive and cohesive could’ve evolved out of the interesting ideas and visuals presented in this supremely trippy sci-fi film. Two aliens arrive on Earth, Scotland to be exact, and quickly assume human form. One looks like a non-descript biker dude, the other like Scarlett Johansson. They set out luring unsuspecting passersby to an unassuming dwelling, where they harvest their bodies after soaking them in black ooze. Since the targets seem to exclusively be heterosexual males, looking like Scarlett Johansson has its distinct advantages.
Lest I be misleading, there’s no meta angle here. Johansson isn’t playing a version of herself. In fact, the filmmakers have done a relatively aggressive job of de-glamming her to the point where she’s somewhat less recognizable. With black hair and minimal makeup, she drives a van around the streets of Scotland. Some of the alien’s victims are played not by actors, but by real randomers. Enticed by the prospect of helping out a pretty, if slightly dowdy, British woman, they approach the van and awkward spit out thickly-accented directions. They’re led (both in real life and in the movie, it would seem) by their libidos. Some of them wind up playing fully nude scenes with Johansson, who bares all in several scenes (for the first time onscreen). Bear in mind, the nudity isn’t played as eroticism. It’s rather clinical, with the alien unable to comprehend just why this foreign physical form is so irresistible.
At some point in Under the Skin, every viewer is liable to wonder, “Where is this all going?” It’s not a spoiler to say that it isn’t going anywhere. There’s no conventional plot to speak of, with the “male” and “female” aliens going about their work, mostly dispassionately, for purposes that remain utterly, frustratingly unexplained. I say “mostly” because, in a sliver of character development, Johansson’s alien begins to feel something – something it doesn’t really understand – for these hapless humans.
The trigger is an encounter with a severely disfigured man (Adam Pearson). Does she feel pity for this lonely heart with a huge, misshapen head? Or does she feel guilt that she’s essentially taking advantage of his loneliness? The other men who approach her are generally predatory on some level, even if it’s the sort of benign predatory nature of most men seeking a quick hook-up. It’s different with this unusual-looking, painfully shy man. It apparently leaves her with second thoughts about her “mission” (whatever it is).
Under the Skin is a relative of Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which David Bowie’s alien loses sight of his reason for being here and gradually ruins his life by succumbing to various temptations. Director Glazer (who co-scripted with Walter Campbell) takes a decidedly feminist standpoint, condemning males as a bunch of unrepentant poon hounds. While that may spur a collectively, “Well, DUH!” from many viewers, it’s interesting to note that in this film, no guy is let off the hook. There aren’t any heroes here, an element which only adds to the overall disorientation. If ever the old “love it or hate it” cliché rang true, it’s with this visually poetic but frustratingly opaque piece of surrealism. It’s hypnotic and a definite conversation-starter, but those seeking a cut-and-dried story should probably steer clear.
The special features don’t shed any real light on the filmmakers’ intentions. Ten featurettes total about 40 minutes and mostly cover technical issues. Luckily, Lionsgate’s Blu-ray offers a suitably outstanding presentation of those technical attributes. The endlessly inventive sound design, offered here as a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, effectively wraps up the viewer in the all the weirdness. While even adventurous viewers might be left cold by Under the Skin, as a purely audio/visual experience, it’s a trip worth taking.