Monday, December 29, 2014

UNDER THE SKIN Is Mesmerizing and Strange Indie Sci-Fi


- This is one of those movies that's really hard to review and definitively relay my thoughts on. Immediately after viewing it, I was convinced that it was sort of a mess. I thought it was indulgent, overly-long and slow, and just sort of pretentious in that "man, this is *really* trying too hard to be indie-arthouse-cool" way. And yet ... I couldn't stop thinking about the movie after watching it (and no, not just because it features a very naked Scarlett Johansson). Certain scenes in the film kept rolling over in my mind. I think there's something about the way the film is presented - in an almost hypnotic, trance-like way - that gives it a sticky quality. It's certainly a movie that I won't soon forget.

UNDER THE SKIN casts Johansson as a mysterious alien being who has come to earth to (for reasons not quite known) kill humans. Presumably, she is using her prey as some sort of food or fuel - humans are a resource to be exploited. What's more clear is how she is going about this grisly business. Having taken the form of an attractive human female, the unnamed alien roams the streets of Scotland, looking for victims. The alien has just enough understanding of human speech and behavior to do her job. And, looking as she does (like, er, Scarlett Johansson ...), the alien is able to fairly easily seduce lonely men and lure them back to her lair. Once there, the seduction continues, culminating in the men being led into a murky pool of black goo (beckoned by the sultry Scarlett, they barely realize what's happening), where they are trapped - frozen in a toxic bath that slowly reduces them to near-nothingness.

These seduction scenes are initially a bit repetitive. But they are also eerie as all hell, and they're where director Jonathan Glazer really shines. At times, Glazer's direction is almost maddeningly methodical. But in these scenes, it's downright hypnotic. Everything is shot in an abstract manner that makes the alien's pit of blackness feel 100% alien. There's a lack of physics and geometry in the scenes that throws off your equilibrium and induces real feelings of dread. What the hell is happening? With each seduction scene, we get a slightly more complete picture of the fate that awaits these poor saps - and as we discover more, the whole scenario only gets creepier.

Apparently, some of the scenes in which Scarlett first meets and picks up these men were shot sans actors, meaning she actually just sort of cruised the streets incognito and chatted up guys. There is definitely an unscripted feel to some of the scenes that makes them that much more unsettling. It really does feel like her character is stalking and preying on these men. However, where the film starts to *really* get interesting is when the alien encounters a deformed man. Her main criteria for selecting victims is, primarily, that they are men without families or close relations who will miss them when they're gone. But she hadn't really considered other factors, and the deformed man's deeply ingrained trauma throws her for a loop. Before, she had only seen men as animals. Now, she begins to question the morality of what she's doing. Throughout the second half of the film, the alien begins to yearn for more genuine human experience and emotional connection. But opening herself up in that way also makes her vulnerable, and sets her up to be a potential victim - to go from hunter to prey.

As mesmerizing as parts of the film are, I do think that Glazer overdoes things a bit with his stylized, art-film aesthetic. Certain moments lend themselves to the sorts of long, contemplative takes he favors. But not every moment benefits from the methodical pace. Prolonged shots of nothing in particular feel unneeded. Basically, the movie constantly walks a fine line between artfully methodical and insufferably glacial. So many films - sci-fi in particular - could stand to slow things down and be less jumpy. But UNDER THE SKIN asks just a little too much of our patience at times. It also doesn't help that the narrative is kept so intentionally vague. The book on which the film is loosely based apparently provides a lot more back-story for the alien. But the film gives us little, despite throwing in lots of frustratingly vague moments meant to hint at the larger narrative. For example, we see lots of scenes of mysterious men on motorcycles following the alien around, presumably cleaning up her mess and keeping law enforcement at bay. Presumably. In truth, the movie provides next to no information about the motorcycle guys, so the continual cuts to them often feel like time-wasters.

And yet ... certain moments in the film are just *so* striking and unforgettable. The seduction scenes in the pit. The encounter between the alien and the deformed man. A later scene in which the alien realizes she's not as human as she thought. And notably, the climactic scene in which we finally get a glimpse of what's "under the skin," and see the alien's true form. Glazer does some amazing stuff here, and I give him credit for, at the least, trying something totally out-there and different with this film. There are certainly no easy or pat answers in this one, but it is a conversation starter. What does it mean to be human? To be a woman? To be an aggressor as opposed to a victim? Scarlett Johansson typically has that slightly off-kilter, detached affectation, and she cranks it up to eleven here. Perfectly cast, she makes the most of the part and really sells the whole unnerving, mind-bending aesthetic of the film.

UNDER THE SKIN can be tough to get through at times, but I think it's a must-watch for film fans and for sci-fi fans, if only to see something completely different and experimental. It took me a while to realize it, but this one most definitely got under my skin.

My Grade: B+

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