Review: Under the skin (spoilers)

A science fiction movie that has no discernible special effects, not one explosion and has a female lead? Have we entered the twilight zone?

Under the Skin gives us Scarlett Johansson as a nameless femme fatale, an alien from an unknown planet intent on stalking men for, I assume, her supper. She is joined by another, apparently a male, who helps her with certain aspects of her work. Their communications are not clear, but visually ominous.

Under the skin does two things very well. First, like Alien, it largely turns the female as victim trope on its head. Usually the women do the screaming, the running and the dying. Here it’s the hapless Scottish male victims of this alien’s seduction that head off into the sunset as her dinner.

Second, it gives us a science fiction movie that’s clearly low budget and perhaps influenced by those of the 1970’s (I’m thinking more The Man Who Fell to Earth than Star Wars here though). It’s an arty, thinking person’s movie. Take for example, the seduction sequence which is perhaps unique in the realm of stalker murder movies. Not a drop of blood is shed, nor screams uttered. Instead of the now  traditional dismemberment, the guts and gore, we have our victims sinking without realising into a black inky substance. This is a far more horrible way to go, more psychologically disturbing and therefore more likely to stay with the viewer after the movie is over. Death and blood has become so passé that, quite frankly, it’s become advertising, fading into the background of our experience. The only thing that seems to trump police procedural body counts on TV these days is the nefarious machinations of reality TV shows. And in both cases, with a few notable exceptions (Broadchurch for one), there seems to be nothing about any of them that actually stands out.

Interestingly, each victim was, in-fact, a real person off the street. The film crew fitted-out the van with cameras and Scarlett merely approached people and made conversation. Then these strangers were approached afterward for permission to use the footage in the movie. One rather interesting victim was Adam Pearson who recently wrote about his experience of the movie in The Guardian. As an alien in his own world, Adam seems to make Scarlett consider her place, and she ditches the van and goes native, travelling up north and into the arms of a helpful stranger.

Here’s where the movie seems to leave our emotionless alien with human emotions and by the end, she is hunted by a complete stranger in a forest. By this stage, the movie has returned to the roots it has tried to undermine; while our alien doesn’t scream once, she is caught and sexually assaulted by the male. Is this a payback for those she took or a script which has run out of ideas? Perhaps even it was the only way that this alien could be revealed and defeated?

Johnathan Glazer of Sexy Beast and Birth has written a thought provoking, adaptation of the novel of the same name by Michel Faber. I can’t confess to having read it, but the novel’s synopsis on Wikipedia paints a different picture of the book’s narrative than that of the movie.  Of course, a novel won’t work really well if it’s got barely any dialogue and long tracking shots don’t really translate to a printed narrative unless it’s a travel book. I’d say, like The Quiet Earth, the new zealand movie based on the book of the same way, these two works have the core elements of the book translated to the screen. I would hazard that there’s not  any of the usual Hollywood “rip off the name and write a different movie beneath” with Under the Skin, but I’m willing to be yelled down.

I’d call this a must-see for 2014 and I’ll be buying the DVD for my moody movies collection along with Only Lovers Leave Alive.

Rating: 4/5 (loses a point for turning the trope back to woman as victim).

Author: gotheek

Sometime writer, full time human.