… visually stunning and deeply disturbing: very freaky, very scary and very erotic. – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Really? Mr. Bradshaw must not be watching the same films as me, because it took me three nights to get through “Under the Skin,” the decidedly not thrilling sci-fi/“thriller” that Bradshaw gave 5 stars. I kept falling asleep. The Guardian was not the only publication to place the film #1 in 2014. According to Wikipedia, over 100 publications named it as one of the best films of the year.
The stunning and talented Scarlett Johansson stars as man-devouring (figuratively) alien. Figuratively, because, after she lures her prey, she walks over a black landscape, but when they follow, seemingly hypnotized, they willingly keep walking as they slowly sink into a black void. And I’m sorry, but that’s not artfully figurative. That’s just ridiculously dumb. Might have been a bit more intriguing if she’d actually consumed them.
The camera hangs on Johansson through most of the film, on her body, scantily clad and eventually nude, at times. Other times on her face. And she’s gorgeous. There’s no doubt. But her beauty cannot carry a film so slow moving that most of the time there’s literally nothing happening.
Although the second half of the movie concerns the alien’s evolution from an unfeeling automaton into a being apparently exhibiting some human traits, she was too other-worldly for me to develop any empathy towards her, and not one other character is developed at all. No one in the film even has names or storylines. There’s no real plot. Director Jonathan Glazer definitely succeeded in making an art film, because there’s nothing else here.
Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer said, “You’ll be captivated or irritated, depending on your need for a clear, linear narrative.” Well, I find that kind of insulting. I prefer films with complex narrative structure but I was definitely irritated. “Under the Skin,” like a mite!
After reading the synopsis and thinking this would be right up my alley, all the critical hype, and learning Johansson, who I like, stars, I was so psyched to see this film, and so sorely disappointed. Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said this film is “so baffling and riveting that when a reel was skipped the first time I saw it I never batted an eye.” For baffling and riveting, I’d suggest instead “Martyrs” (2008), “Naboer” (2005), “Lovely Molly” (2012), “AntiChrist” (2009), “Ahí va el diablo” (2012) or “The Woman” (2011).
John Oursler of Under the Radar called the film “A visionary, thought-provoking sci-fi masterpiece.” For that, I’d suggest “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Pi” (1998) or the short “La Jetee” (1962) – upon which “12 Monkeys” was loosely based. And it’s definitely arty too, composed entirely of still photos.
Some have praised the film’s role reversal, putting the female in the typical male role of stalker/destroyer. For this, I’d suggest “Monster” (2003), “Odishon” (1999), “May” (2002), “American Mary” (2012) or “The Loved Ones” (2009).
Some have praised its ability to get a story across without much dialogue. J.T. Petty’s thesis project “Soft for Digging” accomplishes this much more adeptly, telling a truly intriguing and fully-fleshed out story with only about 12 words in the entire feature.
Now back to Bradshaw’s gushing quote which opened this article:
- For “visually stunning,” instead watch any Ang Lee movie.
- For “disturbing,” check out “Irreversible” (2002), “Dogville” (2003) or “The Girl Next Door” (2007).
- For “freaky,” try “Possession” (1981), “Eraserhead” (1977), “Santa Sangre” (1989) or local Jacksonville comedy/sci-fi “BlackMatterTomithy” (2014 – which you can watch for free on YouTube here).
- For “scary,” I’d suggest “[REC]” (2007), “The Ring” (2002), “Wolf Creek” (2005) or “The Descent” (2005).
As far as “erotic,” that’s really a matter of personal taste, but I’d posit that two (or more) people who understand sexuality should touch each other at some point in the film. Johansson’s character, not a human, possesses no erotic feelings. She doesn’t know what sex is or understand it. And she kills the men without even touching them. How is that titillating? Let’s face it, most critics are male, thus, most of the rave reviews come from men. Maybe just looking at Johansson gets them so aroused they give the movie a great review? Either that or the effusive critics just wanted to seem cool and avant-garde?