This review may contain spoilers.
“Under the Skin” is a movie based on the book of the same name by Walter Faber. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t do a comparison; although, I understand there are significant differences. This is essentially a movie about aliens coming to Earth to do bad things to people, but there’s a lot more going on here that makes the story more interesting.
The movie opens with a man on a motorcycle (Jeremy McWilliams) stopping next to a white, windowless van that is parked on the side of the road. The rider then retrieves a woman’s apparently lifeless body from what appears to be a nearby field. He places her in the van, which is revealed to be a bright, yet featureless void. A naked woman (Scarlett Johansson) approaches and takes the other woman’s clothes off and dresses herself. The seemingly lifeless woman (Lynsey Taylor Mackay) sheds a tear while this occurs. Johansson’s character then drives off in the van, with the motorcyclist leaving the area as well.
The woman picks up a series of men who are alone. She carefully gathers information on them using her charm and beauty, making sure they are without family or friends who may miss them. After getting them into the van, she takes them to her apartment under the premise that they will have sex. Her place is a rundown wreck on the outside, and an inky black void on the inside where the men meet an unkind fate. It’s never fully explained why, but it doesn’t need to be because, hey, aliens. The motorcyclist assists her in cleaning up any messes left behind.
Later, the woman is giving a ride to a man with neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that is evident via the fibromas (tumors, essentially) on his face. He is very lonely, yet also wary of her attention. He agrees to go to her apartment after a time and does enter the void, but the woman seems remorseful about what she is allowing to happen to him and sets him free. She must run as several motorcyclists are now looking for her. She experiences humanity in several forms, both good and bad, as she tries to figure out who she is and where she is going to go.
From the opening scene, there is an overall sense of tension and creepiness that works. The spare musical score by Mica Levi only helped, being used to excellent effect when the men enter the woman’s very disturbing apartment. The tension breaks during the third act as the woman is on the run, but a new kind of tension takes its place as the woman is trying to figure out what to do.
Johansson is very good here. She has an unusual beauty and is minimally made up, which only adds to her look. There is a coldness that she brings, a hard edge, which is necessary to play an alien that has no care for humanity.
The lonely man with neurofibromatosis was played by Adam Pearson, and he captured my attention completely. The director, Jonathan Glazer, didn’t want to use prosthetics and brought in Pearson, who suffers from the genetic disorder. Johansson and Pearson’s conversation in the van was fascinating, and I understand that Pearson gave suggestions as to how Johansson’s character could seduce him.
The other men she picked up in the movie were not professional actors (except for Paul Brannigan), and this is a risky thing to do, but the conversations were real and give the audience a sense of voyeurism. There was a good flow to the back and forth between Johansson and the various men she seduces.
The shot locations in Scotland were amazing, particularly the ones in the countryside and at the beach. It just makes me want to go to Scotland even more (I want to travel everywhere). Speaking of the beach, the most effective scene in the film is the one shot there. It is heartbreaking and cold and made me uncomfortable, yet there was not an ounce of gore. Very effective.
Almost nothing is given away as to motive, and this makes the aliens feel much more alien. There’s a metaphorical aspect to this film that made me go, “Ohh, I see.” It took me a minute to put it together after it was over.
The effects are spare, save for the apartment scenes and a shot at the end of the film, and this only adds to the mystery. What effects you do see are nicely handled, particularly one stunner in the apartment/void.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
It’s a slow burner and doesn’t get much faster toward the end. It’s not supposed to. This won’t work for people who like more action or need to understand motivation. That’s not a bad thing, you just won’t get those needs fulfilled by this film.
The tone is so strange, given its point of view is from the alien; this may also scare off some viewers who like their sci-fi more grounded. Beyond this, I don’t have much bad to say. It’s a cool little flick.
There is a considerable amount of nudity, both male and female, but it’s necessary to the story and never feels exploitative. There isn’t much in the way of language. And although the movie straddles the line between horror and sci-fi, there’s no gore. Check this out if you like your sci-fi on the creepy and quiet side.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
“Under The Skin” was written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell, and it’s based on the novel by Michael Faber. It was directed by Glazer and stars Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay and Adam Pearson.