Under the Skin (2013)

For Day 2 of 31 Days of Horror 2014 we picked Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s weird, atmospheric sci-fi horror flick utspstarring Scarlett Johansson. I’ve never really been a fan of Johansson, but I learned my lesson a while ago not to judge a movie by its casting alone (and boy, is it hard to admit that Keira Knightley taught me that lesson. Ouch). I would say, though, that it’s pretty difficult for me to withhold judgement on a film based on its writer/director. Prior to watching Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer didn’t hold much weight in my book; I didn’t think much of Sexy Beast, and still to this day wonder why the heck so many people love it. And Birth? Oh lordy, what a disastrous mess that was!  So basically what I’m saying is, I was unjustly biased against Under the Skin before I even watched it. Even so, I was excited and intrigued to give it a go.

To put it bluntly, Johansson plays an alien dressed in a woman’s skin who drives around Scotland at night looking for lonely men that no one will miss. She seems to be in league with a guy on a motorcycle who is apparently responsible for finding her human skin. She uses her feminine wiles to bring them to her flat, where something very bad happens to them. We get a very vague hint as to what exactly happens to these men, but for the most part it remains quite mysterious. Neither is it clear what role the motorcycle man plays in the killings, but it does seem as though he’s a step above her in the Alien hierarchy. What is pretty clear is the cold calculation in Johansson’s character; she baits and traps them with little to no expression or emotion on her face.

Things are not looking good, random dude.

Things are not looking good, random dude.

She goes on this way for some time, seemingly unfazed at the loss of human life. At a certain point though she has some sort of an epiphany, and attempts to run away from her “home,” letting her latest catch go free. Now she has nowhere to go and is on the run from the motorcycle man. She’s no longer the predator, she is now the prey. Not only is her mysterious colleague out looking for her, but the men she used to pounce upon are licking their chops, as well. There are moments where it seems as though the Alien is attempting to get in touch with its inner humanity, but this never really turns out well for our Alien friend, unfortunately.

This is another one of those movies that, after watching and thinking about, I’m still not sure how I really feel about it. I think that I really, really liked it. At the same time though, the ending left me feeling a bit like a dog waiting for its human to give it a treat, head cocked slightly to the right with hopeful, questioning eyes. Perhaps that isn’t a bad thing, though; I have certainly learned in the last few years that films that give you all the answers are a hell of a lot less interesting than the ones that leave you asking questions at the end.

Alien overwhelmed with the urban landscape.

Alien overwhelmed with the urban landscape.

One thing I know for sure is that the movie is absolutely gorgeously shot. Its looks alone are enough to compel me to recommend it to others. It just looks so darn good! On top of that, it is one of the most original movies I’ve seen in quite a long time. I really love the weirdness the men are confronted with once the Alien lures them back to her flat; it’s like no other “murder” scene I’ve ever seen. It manages to convey the total other-worldliness of our Alien without revealing any of her motives or weaknesses. True, this is another one of those slow burn films; the action is very drawn out and downplayed, but that definitely adds to its mystery and is in step with the Alien’s deliberate plan of attack.

Alien seems to fare much better in the forest.

Alien seems to fare much better in the forest.

Everything changes, of course, once the Alien breaks free from this pattern and attempts to discover humanity for itself. Things get a little more frantic, and with the tables turned the movie starts to tell the story of a woman victimized by the society she attempts to embrace, only after exploiting the hell out of it for some unknown reason. It is an interesting change of tone, and kind of reminds me a little bit of Teeth, only in reverse: instead of learning how to use her feminine attraction to her advantage, the Alien here is trying to learn to be a normal, vulnerable human being. In that way, it is almost a coming-of-age story, only, for, um, an Alien… becoming a human…

If you are a patient, curious movie-watcher, this is your guy. If you want blood and guts, this probably isn’t going to do it for you. Actually, here is a tip: check out the soundtrack. It is such a perfect match for the tone and pacing of the film, it should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. If you dig it, I’d say chances are pretty good you’ll like the movie. At the very least, it will give you something to think about for a long while after having seen it. Oh, and another intriguing tidbit which I didn’t know until after having seen the movie: most of those dudes Johansson picks up are not actors; they’re Scottish dudes who have no idea who she is. Adds an eerie, real-life familiarity to something that is very Alien.


2 Responses to “Under the Skin (2013)”

  1. 1 ladyfaceladyface
    October 3, 2014 at 5:39 am

    I loved the quiet, eerie, otherworldliness of this film too. It really stuck with me. Also ScarJo surprised me in this role. Side note: Could you understand the Glaswegian accents? I liked how the silence was interrupted by these dudes I could barely parse. It added to the atmosphere!

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