Under the Skin (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Fascinating ambiguity under its SF skin

Undertheskin01 “Under the Skin” will baffle you and frustrate you with its cold, abstract style, but it is also a weirdly fascinating experience you cannot easily forget. The movie only gives us a few bits of vague information on what is going on and below its surface, and there are still many things left unexplained even after its final minute, but its glacial ambiguity has a way of drawing our attention to how it is about even when we are not so sure about what exactly it is all about.

During its opening sequence which is alternatively mysterious and ominous, we see lights and circles in the dark background as a voice of woman is heard on the soundtrack. Uttering the series of syllables during this uncanny moment, her voice sounds like an artificial machine practicing its communication skill before its full operation, and then we arrive at the shot showing a pupil, which seems to signify nothing but indirectly recalls our memories with “Vertigo”(1958) and “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968).

And then we meet an anonymous motorcyclist(Jeremy McWilliams), who seems to be doing a covert mission in Scotland. After stopping at one spot on the road, he walks down from the road to somewhere, and then he comes back with a female body. He puts the body into a van, and then we see the body laid in a white blank space. Another woman, played by Scarlett Johansson with dark wig, comes into the scene, and, after a little moment of curious inspection, she takes clothes and other things from the body with no hesitation.

Driving the van around streets, the woman picks up guys whenever they look suitable for her hidden purpose. She approaches to them mainly through innocuous questions about direction, and then, after offering them a ride, she lures them to her house. As watching these guys entering that suspicious place with no question, I was reminded of those old folk stories about unlucky guys enticed into deadly trap by an attractive girl who is not what she seems to be on the surface. I thought they were pretty dumb, but it is not easy for guys to say no to a sexy, beautiful woman, right?

Undertheskin05 Of course, they never get out of the house after their entrance. They do not seem to have any slightest piece of doubt even when they go into a very, very dark space in the house, and then something quite bad happens to them when they go after her for sex. The movie is based on Michel Faber’s novel with the same name, and I heard that Faber’s novel describes a lot about this sinister process and many other things, but you do not need to read the novel to see that 1) the woman and the motorcyclist are aliens from the outer space and 2) their secret mission is not so pleasant to our species regardless of whatever their actual purpose really is.

This is an unconventional SF film which is mainly driven by atmosphere rather than plot, and the director/co-screenplay writer Jonathan Glazer, who debuted with “Sexy Beast”(2000) and then made “Birth”(2004) before this film, gives us a curious mix of surreal ambience and realistic touches. As shown in the movie, Johansson drove the van around Glasgow while hiding her identity and her ‘mission’, and that makes an amusing parallel between the movie and the filmmaking process behind it. The men approached by Johansson in the movie are mostly non-actors who did not know that they were being filmed by the hidden cameras installed in the van; they were notified about that later, and some of them got more time to act with Johansson if they were willing to participate more in the production.

With the creepy ambient score by Mica Levi and the chilly cinematography by Daniel Landin, the movie sticks to its ambiguous tone from the start and never steps back from it while maintaining its enigmatic attitude. Although a little amount of tension is added during its second half, that does not affect its slow, contemplative pace much, and the desolate wintry landscapes of the Scottish Highlands add another layer of cold, distant beauty to the film.

Undertheskin04 This can be a very frustrating experience to some of you, but the movie is not devoid of interest, and, if you are ready to go along with its pace and mood, it constantly engages your curiosity through its odd moments. There is a chilling scene in which an innocent baby is helplessly left alone on a remote beach while a terrible thing is happening nearby, and then we get a moment of small ironic poignancy during the chance encounter between the alien heroine and a man with disfigured face(he is played by a real guy suffering from neurofibromatosis type I, by the way).

Effectively dialing down her star presence, Scarlett Johansson gives a beguiling low-key performance which subtly suggests what is behind her character’s appearance through facial expressions and body languages. We sometimes sense what is probably happening to this nameless alien as observing her behaviors being gradually affected by her human disguise, but then we are also reminded of an undeniable fact that she is an outsider we may never understand well, as reflected by one brief scene featuring a piece of chocolate cake.

While reminiscent of several SF films such as “Lifeforce”(1985) and “Species”(1995) because of its fatal alien seductress, “Under the Skin” reminds me a lot of Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth”(1976), an equally strange SF film about an alien who comes down to the Earth with a far less sinister purpose. Even though I frequently felt lost and confused during my viewing, I admired the offbeat spirit of that flawed but interesting cult film, and “Under the Skin” impressed me in similar ways through its pure abstract beauty open to any possible interpretation of its components. It surely requires a certain amount of patience, but you may find it absorbing if you are looking for something different.


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