Movie Review – Under the Skin (2013)

Art-house horror films seem to divide genre fans. Their emphasis on symbolism, aesthetics, experimentation, and their unconcern for traditional narrative can frustrate viewers who are used to or reliant upon films that are more straightforward and designed for larger markets and mass appeal. Ironically, horror is rarely made for large markets or mass appeal, but many fans go to the genre for the comfort of the usual tropes. This is not a criticism, but merely an observation. 2013’s Under the Skin is exactly the kind of movie one talks about when discussing art-house horror, and it’s therefore a film that generates strong reactions from viewers, with them either loathing or loving it. Count me in the latter party.

Expertly directed by Jonathan Glazer, and based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber, Under the Skin is an alien abduction movie like no other. The film opens with what we at first assume is a solar system aligning, only to find that it is actually the construction of an eye, all the while hearing Scarlett Johansson’s voice play over as she practices human speech. This immediately invokes themes of interplanetary travel and physical transformation, appropriately though enigmatically telling the audience the origins of our central character. Johansson plays the mysterious alien posing as a woman who drives around Glasgow, Scotland, luring unsuspecting men back to a dilapidated house where they submerge into a reflective, meniscus fluid. The purpose of these abductions is unclear, but they’re also beside the point. Instead the lens and the narrative focus on Johansson and what she sees and how she sees it, the camera at first viewing the world around her as dispassionately as she does. At one point the street scenes layer into chaos, mirroring her own inability to process what she is seeing, and we ultimately see ourselves through her objective perspective. She is aware, perhaps even trained, to understand that her body is a lure for men, yet she does not fully understand the function or potential of that body, at least not for the first half of the film.

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The character arc, however, is really about awakening to human experience. The alien begins to become aware of the sensations of her new skin, both the pain and the pleasure, as well as of sympathy. At first her gaze is reserved for her male victims, seeking them out on the city streets, but then the gaze turns towards women. These women are not potential victims, but role models for the alien as she comes to gradually recognize her own femininity. Nature plays a heavily symbolic role, as we see her begin at an empty industrial zone and enter the city, yet as she becomes conscious of a growing humanity she moves to the suburbs and then to the dense forests – that is, closer to the natural world.

Other themes float through the film. For a change we follow what amounts to a female serial killer prowling for male victims, placing men in the position usually reserved both in fiction and actuality for women. The men she meets have no concern for their own safety, revealing a patriarchal culture in which men have nothing to fear from women; though, as the film shows, women have much to fear from men.

Under the Skin lives up to its name. Though it’s a quiet film that’s patiently paced, it manages to be wholly unnerving by hitting the viewer in emotional places that horror often attempts but rarely succeeds in capturing. As a father of a young son, the scene of the toddler crying on the beach, struggling to stand as the alien walks by him as unemotionally as the approaching waves, haunts me. Likewise, the void in which the male victims are suspended nude as if in a womb, looking at each other with a seeming curious apathy, is disturbing. The viewer can hear the clicks of eyelids shutting as though we were floating with them, airless. And the climax of the scene, when we see what becomes of these men, is both horrifying and mesmerizingly beautiful. It pokes at our fears of being used and discarded, which is once again usually a theme reserved for female victims.

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The narrative of the film is not an obvious one, as the importance of scenes is often not apparent until several more have passed. The filmmaking process, too, is nontraditional. Many scenes, including those in the nightclub and shopping center, were filmed covertly so as to capture some authenticity. The men who are lured by Johansson are unaware of the cameras, allowing them to act naturally. Despite these hidden cameras the gorgeous cinematography is never compromised. The special effects, which are mostly done in camera, are visually stunning. Input was also added from significant cast members to gain realism, particularly with regard to a victim played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, as he told the director what things Johansson might do to effectively seduce him.

As mentioned above with the audio of the void, the sound design and score add another layer of discomfort. The score itself sounds alien at times, the noises invoking natural forces or contrasted with the synthetic sounds of synths or changing radio frequencies. We are thus reminded of alien technology and our central character’s own artificiality, as well as the natural impulses which are making their presence known upon her.

Lastly, a word must be said about Scarlett Johansson, upon whom the film by necessity rests. She gives either a great performance, or an equally and appropriately great nonperformance – I’m still not sure which. Either way, it’s a difficult and brave role and she is up to the task entirely. This film marks Johansson’s first full frontal nude scene, and it says something to the film’s power and to her performance that her exquisite body did not distract me – a red-blooded heterosexual male who has certainly admired her form often in the past – from the symbolism and importance of the moment. Indeed, it perhaps speaks to the strength of the film that a famous sex symbol’s nude scene attracted such little fanfare, as the scene, in the context of the film, is less sexy than it is contemplative.

Under the Skin is the kind of film that excites me as a horror fan. It invokes the best of David Lynch and Lars von Trier and it goes to places artistically where the genre rarely treads, revealing whole new potentials for future filmmakers. As an art-house horror it’s not for everyone, but it’s an experience I’d gladly crawl beneath the surface of again.

Grade: A-