UNDER THE SKIN
**** (out of 5)
April 4, 2014
Scarlett Johansson as THE WOMAN
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
BY KEVIN CARR
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You may not know it by watching the wide release mainstream movies, but 2014 is shaping up to be a very cool year for science fiction. Sure, it’s nice to have the sci-fi superhero spectaculars like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but it’s also really neat to have some cooler, slicker and more speculative fiction coming out of the independent field.
“Under the Skin” is a prime example of this quality level of speculative fiction in the independent marketplace. The film takes place in Scotland where a mysterious woman takes the form of what appears to be a dead hooker. She uses her attractive body to seduce men off the streets. Once she lures them to a private location, they are absorbed into her hive, and she heads back out for more victims. However, at one point, she seems curious about what it’s like to be in the skin of a human and deviates from her mission to experience what her flesh has to offer.
On the surface, “Under the Skin” is a low-key film. It’s a slow burn with very little happening throughout. However, there’s a lot going on under the skin, if you will. Few answers are given or explanations offered as to who she really is, what her mission is, what eventually happens to her victims and who her mysterious associates are. Instead, director Jonathan Glazer lets the story play out for itself, full of mystery and open to interpretation.
Over the years, I have not been much of a fan of Johansson. Sure, she’s easy on the eyes, but most of her performances have been relatively bland. Now that she has reached a level of potential superstardom with her appearances in the Marvel films, she’s actually taking some chances.
While there’s not much in terms of overt acting from Johansson, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Her presence works for the movie, letting her been seductive and alluring while keeping a sinister air around her. And when her character finally breaks through and decides to question her bizarre existence, we see a real amount of empathy from her.
“Under the Skin” has both a retro feel and a progressive feel to it. On one hand, it’s minimalist filmmaking with a strange atmosphere that hints at Kubrick and Lynch. On the other hand, it’s got some understated and subtle effects that aren’t spectacular but would not have been able to be achieved 30 years ago.
It is these effects, which included to enhance the story rather than showcase a visual effects house, that ground the story in reality. Like a fine actor, they don’t grandstand but rather work generously to allow the movie to be what it needs to.
Supporting the entire film is a retro synth soundtrack, which seems to be a bit of a fad today. I’m okay with that because I grew up with movies scored by Tangerine Dream and other then-modern electronica. Like “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” which is another out-of-the-box mind-bending sci-fi thriller, the relatively scant dialogue we hear in this film makes the movie more like a somber music video or performance art piece. It’s one of those movies that you could play in the background and enjoy the sound as much as you would to directly watch it.
I don’t want all of my science fiction movies to be like “Under the Skin,” but the real greatness of this film is that it is allowed to be what it is against a much larger mainstream backdrop. That’s what makes the film an enigma that’s fascinating to watch. You won’t see anything else like it in theaters right now.