Published on June 1st, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant


Under the Skin

Under the Skin is cold, minimal sci-fi filmmaking with esoteric visual force, and may or may not be an exploration of gender violence and misogyny.

There is a subsection of science fiction that I love; cold sci-fi films that use their minimal nature to telegraph the iciness of inner or outer space (sometimes to create horror, sometimes not), and to ask existential questions with an aloof and emotionless tone.  The look of these films are minimal, but often times the narrative is as well, which lets your imagination fill in some of the blanks.  They create a more ponderous atmosphere rather than hitting you over the head with the meaning of it all.  Films like The Quiet Earth, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris (both the Soderbergh and Tarkovsky versions) and Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth form the spine of this genre-within-a-genre.  Though not the best film in the bunch, it doesn’t get any colder than The Andromeda Strain, where there are lengthy sequences explaining how a system of underground laboratories work.  It doesn’t get much colder or more scientific than that.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) and based on a book by Michael Faber, Under the Skin is one of the best cold sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen, worthy of addition to the canon.  Without giving away too much, the film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress who is preying on men in Scotland, luring them back to a secret place where they meet a strange and horrifying fate.  I saw it with Feedback Society writer Dave Scaddan, and as we walked out, he dubbed it, “The Tease Who Fell To Earth.”

Intrigue pulls you in right from the start as Glazer wisely only gives you enough information to raise your eyebrows, then slowly portions it out on a need to know basis as you begin to construct who Johansson is and what she’s doing.  I actually wish I had gone in completely blind and hadn’t known the premise (and I’m sorry I already screwed you at the start by telling you as much as I did, but it’s hard to discuss it with a total lack of context).

Parts of the film were shot in the street using hidden cameras, with Johansson ad libbing interactions with actual people, which gives it a pretty realistic feeling.  That said, the film is so free of dialogue that it plays like a silent film in a lot of ways, with Johansson’s performance and the mundane realism of some of the interactions creating body language and facial expressions that help tell the story with as few meaningful conversations as possible.

Johansson is an actress that can sometimes be great, sometimes ho-hum, and here she is on her game.  She doesn’t try to play the character as a cold terminator.  She’s child-like in a lot of ways, until she has to turn on the charm to get her succubus on.  There’s a telling scene where she meets a Joseph (John) Merrick-type with a severe facial deformity, but it’s as if she doesn’t notice his looks; she treats him like any other man.  Johansson plays it well, and it gives you the slightest insight to the alienness of her character; sure, we quickly gather that she doesn’t care that he’s grotesque — but does she even know?

Also adding to the mystery and often creating dread, is an atmosphere-building score and some insane visuals.  The film is a veritable feast of weird, enigmatic Lynchian alien scenes, poetic and hypnotic shots and imagery, and even some beautiful, Scottish landscapes, blanketed in mysterious fog and underscored by the music.

There are obvious gender themes in the film, though I’ll be damned if I could discern what Under the Skin was trying to say (and in full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, though I’m told that the film doesn’t follow it too closely).  It seems to be saying something about how easy it is to turn a man into an animal by appealing to his base instincts.  It seems to be commenting on how dangerous this makes the world for a woman, perhaps a statement on rape culture.  I know some feminists that would argue that the ending flips to take on misogynous tones — though, is any punishment she suffers misogyny, a comment against it, or just where the story needed to go to provide an ending?

The story is open to a universe of interpretation, and yet, it wasn’t baffling in any way.  It could have perhaps had five or ten minutes trimmed out, as it starts to feel a little tedious when it shifts into Starman territory, but I would also be careful with the scissors, because you wouldn’t want to ruin that hypnotic, spacy vibe.

This really isn’t a movie for the usual multiplexer, unless they want to challenge themselves (or see Scarlett Johansson’s boobs).  But there is a shining sea of utter brilliance for cinephiles to soak up, whether they’re prone to digging science fiction or not.  Because it’s still sitting with me days later, I can easily say that Under the Skin is one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.  Then again, I’m a straight up sucker for that icy cold sci-fi.

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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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