Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, Under the Skin, is a work of two halves, at once a sharp and mysterious thriller that throws convention to the wind and then also a bland search for humanity and compassion that undercuts so much of the first conception that the film itself remains quite flawed. It isn’t a bad film, though, but one which doesn’t work as a cohesive whole to a level where I would say to someone that it is worth seeing – the disappointment stings. However, it is shaping up to be the little film that could, the one online critics both here and abroad fawn over because of its visual prowess or an acceptance of the undercooked approach to empathy and emotion. Another reason rises in favor of a less than enthusiastic response, then, that being that the film isn’t worthy of the reception it appears to be getting.
Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel of the same name does more than just trim the fat, by a few accounts it is drastically removed from the original text, in delivering a hyperstylised and enigmatic study of human interaction and perception.1 This is not a bad thing and, for the purposes of the film, it works more like an intriguing short story; its enigma propels it through initial issues of narrative. The film centres around an unnamed woman/alien (Scarlett Johansson) in Scotland who lures men into her van and then to their untimely deaths at the behest of an unseen force. Beautifully shot and scored sequences that merge pure tension with a captivatingly sparse visual schema craft an engaging narrative unknown. We can surmise the general aims of the plan but it’s not at all important. The very act of a woman driving around in a van picking up men and leading them to their deaths is an unusual narrative device and, when infused with a supernatural element, pushes the film even further outside of the normalcy of genre trappings. That’s not to say the film makes any successful statement on gender or sexuality. Whilst the film uses male obsession with sexual gratification to both good and bad narrative effect (at its worst in its fairly dreadful ending), the idea of Johannson’s character being a force of female reckoning is undercut by both plot points and the fact that her actions are supervised and coordinated by alien men on motorbikes. Her realisation that she is part of this cyclical machine and an escape from destructive habits is one reason why the plot suddenly takes a turn for the mundane in the second half of the film.2
Kubrick seems to be the catchphrase for reviews of this one (and also for his previous films Sexy Beast and Birth), yet less influence than straight homage is apparent here, whether through the seemingly infinite white interior of her van or in the opening motorcycle shot, with red and yellow lights whizzing by like Dave heading to Jupiter in 2001.3 Where Kubrick succeeded, though, was beyond visuals. His precision involved the merger of image and idea, even where the idea was obfuscated. Overall, though, Glazer only half hits the mark – not out of any pretension, in fact he earns every visual flourish – as a result of abandoning precise visual spaces and their inherent abstract meaning for fairly conventional landscape scenery and an even more conventional plot.4
The plot is the problem. That’s the essential takeaway from this. If the film lost half an hour of weakly constructed self-discovery/coming-of-age/alien-feeling-compassion it wouldn’t have lost what made it so powerful – the unknown.5 Seeing the protagonist stand up and walk through the fog about halfway through the film, the stark visual contrast of an all-encompassing grey, jolted me into thinking that this really was going to treat the film as a gutpunch of a short story, a wonderfully callous kneejerk; I got the feeling I did about sixty minutes into watching Gravity where I thought that the film was wrapping up with a realistic ending, her in a pod floating off into nothingness. Instead, Under the Skin engages a notion of compassion and humanity that runs the gamut from Pinocchio‘s real boy to Johannson’s self-aware operating system in Her. This notion of discovering humanity is, on a very basic level, boring if not done in an interesting way. It’s been done to death and done much better than the fumbled discovery of sexual identity here, and the ability to map the character development to teen dramas and Disney stories doesn’t work in the film’s favour. The film loses its sharp visual tone and its edge as it moves into these concerns in front of a canvas of the Scottish countryside. Attempted scenes of humour and warmth – her trying to eat cake and her discovering her own genitalia – were less amusing for me than cold and aloof. It became tedious to sit through, the only glimmer of hope being the hyperstylised and wonderfully abstract genre infusion of the motorcyclists on the hunt. This inability to engage also comes from Johansson’s brilliantly cold work in the first half hour, which sets up an abstract and intentionally unempathetic protagonist – the audience caught between total intimacy and emotion as absentee – that is, until a narrative of self-awakening then attempts to squander the unique potential of the character set-up in the first act.
The latter half of the film is blatantly hollow and even elements of the opening half hour are as well. Driving around Scotland in a hyper-documentary style is engaging but also repetitive and a little trite. There’s an odd self-conscious novelty to the matter – the famous actor in a van playing a character ‘acting’ to people who are in fact played by real people (!) – with the pace of the narrative driven by expectational tension over anything within each scene.
On more positive notes, the score by Mica Levi is a marvel, the strings as hapless men walk to their impending doom is definitely one of the best intersections of original score and pure visual spectacle I’ve seen in some time. On that point, praise should also go to cinematographer Daniel Landin and the visual effects team because those ‘black room’ sequences are stunning and truly haunting, Glazer is perhaps at his best in a return to the music video (of sorts) format.
Cries of masterpiece seem very much unfounded, or at least caught up in overly subjective readings filling in the blanks. It’s not all bad, though, Glazer’s latest engages on a few shallow levels, contains some visual mastery and a near-perfect sequence on a beach that plays with empathy and emotional engagement on a level so much higher than anything in the final hour. It’s the lacklustre second half that muddies what could have been a truly unique cinematic experience.
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