Made in Britain: Under the Skin (2014)

undertheskin

Christ, I’ve been lazy. I’ve got all sorts of entertaining reviews of drivel racked up and ready to go, but I am instead going to review The Guardian’s number 1 film of last year: Under the Skin. This is billed as an erotic sci-fi horror art film, which reads to me like they put a number of movie descriptors into a hat and then drew them out until they got bored. Nevertheless, this is a film I really wanted to see last year, as I like one of the director’s previous efforts (more on this in a moment), the awesome Sexy Beast.

Contains Alien fuckmonsters and spoilers below.

Based on a novel by Michael Faber that I’ve not read, and to be honest not ever heard of, Under the Skin is former highly successful ad director Glazer’s third film. I only mention that he was an ad director because he was responsible for the epic Guinness surfer ad from back in the day. Anyhoo, Glazer was a former bright young thing and man to watch before he committed epic career suicide with the hideous Birth, and Under the Skin has been 10 years in the gestation. So, was it worth it?

This is an Alien Fuckmonster. Just so you know

This is an Alien Fuckmonster. Just so you know

Charting the antics of Scarlett Johansson’s alien seductress as she trawls around Glasgow picking up men to immerse them in a black goo of doom, Under the Skin seems to be almost singularly lacking a plot. What does happen, instead, is that we witness a series of disturbing set pieces, a lot of intentionally pretentious visuals before an abrupt and upsetting climax. As such, a plot synopsis of under the skin is about as much use as tits on a boar. Sure, it gives you a brief feeling for the events that actually take place, but it doesn’t really aid any understanding of the film whatsoever.

As such it makes writing a coherent review somewhat challenging, and this is exacerbated by Glazer’s style, which draws from Kubrik, Lynch and probably a whole shit load of other influences that I’m probably forgetting. Nevertheless, what this amounts to is an unsettling and mildly unpleasant (in a good way) film that resists both comprehension and analysis. I’m sure that it has lots to say about who we are as people, “under the skin”, and the most successful section of the film would certainly support this guess, but I was left feeling strangely empty after it, and I don’t think it really works for me.

She spends a lot of the film in this state

She spends a lot of the film in this state

On the plus side, Scarjo puts in a career best performance as the Alien fuckmonster. She’s ethereal, convincing and downright creepy, having an otherworldly feel that masks her usual total lack of acting ability. And she does full frontal, so there is that out there. She’s well supported by first time actor Adam Pearson (more on him in a minute), and a host of other actors who appear and disappear fairly fast.

The two best scenes in the film are the capture of the guy on the beach and the sequence featuring the physically deformed man. The former is harrowing- with Alien Fuckmonster taking a man in a wetsuit who was attempting to rescue two people. The touch that elevates this is that her handler (a man on a motorbike who never says a word) turns up to collect the guy’s gear leaving the couple’s distraught toddler sitting on the beach crying. This is genuinely viscerally unpleasant, and Glazer’s stripped down style culminates with a lingering shot on the wee nipper’s face as he sits alone in the drizzle. Horrifying.

Digested. Tasty

Digested. Tasty

The second sequence worth talking about, easily the best bit of the film, is when Alien Fuckmonster (I’m bored of typing this now, so she’s now AF) picks up a man with neurofibromatosis. Pearson is the man in question, and is actually a sufferer from the disease. He puts in a staggering turn, more than matching the professional he’s with and summoning up real pathos in the scene. To be fair, though, Johannson also puts in a career best performance during this sequence and there’s some warmth between the pair of them- something absent from what is otherwise a very cold film. If I’m sticking a recommendation on Under the Skin, and I haven’t decided if I am yet, then it’s purely on the basis of this scene.

Other worthwhile sequences are the slow, seductive, stripteases leading the men into the goop, the “ohmigod is that my vagina” scene and the grizzly climax. The first of these is shot “artfully” being almost in total darkness with a spotlight over AF and a focus on the guy as he walks towards her across a glossy black floor that eventually consumes him. This, actually, is fairly indicative of the way Glazer has staged and shot the rest of the movie- it’s incredibly arty, to an almost painful degree in places, and mostly at the cost of emotion and warmth. An Alien Fuckmonster is very hard to relate to and empathise with at the best of times, and a series of random encounters doesn’t exactly give the audience a lot in the way of characters to latch on to.

13091102_Under_the_Skin_04 (1).jpg

Touchy touchy

 

The problem, for me anyway, is that despite all the positives laid out above, it’s, well, kind of boring. The fragmented nature of the narrative means that it feels disjointed and much of it verges on the tedious. I’m not asking for a Michael Bay explosion orgy, or some proper torture porn and gore, but Under the Skin feels too slow and sterile for my tastes. Even with a decent atmosphere, full frontal nudity and guys being digested by magic black goop. I can see why this is a critical darling, as it’s intelligent, adult, arty film-making, but I think for the general ignorami that it’s too cold and too boring to really gain any traction.

Overall, I’m torn on this. I have a feeling that it’s a film to admire rather than like, but I don’t particularly admire it either. I think, at the end of the day, that I simply don’t get it, and while I rate the creepy atmosphere and generally good performances it still doesn’t really work for me. I’m probably setting a record for nebulous review criteria here, but at the end of the day Under the Skin is an exquisitely well made and well performed film that doesn’t do a whole bunch for me and is unlikely to resuscitate Glazer’s career. It’s a big ball of meh, I’m afraid and not really a great start to my 2015 reviews.

meh

Really, I just don’t like it very much, and feel a bit disappointed. I do think, however, that this is nowhere near the best film of last year.

Still, until next time,

Jarv

Made in Britain

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

22 responses to “Made in Britain: Under the Skin (2014)”

  1. Jarv says :

    I’m a bit rusty, so sorry if it’s a bit disjointed.

    Anyhoo, that’s the cherry cracked for 2015

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    Scar Jo is weird looking so good choice for an alien.

  3. Continentalop says :

    I thought you wrote a good review here Jarv, because you pretty much summed up how I felt about it.

    The film is full of interesting ideas and cinematic touches, but is just so distant and remote and ponderous it leaves no real impression. Maybe it’s too smart for me, or maybe it’s not as smart as it thinks it is. Who knows?

    It’s the kind of movie that I will probably never think about again, but at the same time I hope other directors will watch and draw inspiration from (especially if they’re planning on shooting a thriller or drama about serial killers or something similar).

    • Jarv says :

      Yeah- completely agree. Distant, remote and ponderous about sums it up.

      There is a lot here that is blatantly “good” and I kind of wish the bit with the deformed guy was just a short unconnected to the rest.

      • Continentalop says :

        One of the things I find most interesting SPOILERS was when she killed her first victim and he follows her into the black room and sinks into the floor. I thought they were being symbolic, that it was an expressionistic metaphor for what had happened to the victims. I thought that was ingenious.

        Then later “Nope. It is fucking literally what is happening to them. Lame.”

      • Jarv says :

        See- I still think it’s a metaphor. The house didn’t have scope to be doing that to them, and she let Pearson go.

  4. tombando says :

    Oh This is Scarjo’s alien killer beast movie. I thought Lucy was that. Shows whether I even read reviews of that…this sounds blagh! Dancing Katy Perry sharks needed?

  5. Judge Droid says :

    I’ve had this movie for months, but I haven’t really been bothered to watch it. For a lot of the reasons you describe (arty, pretentious etc), which I picked up on in the trailer.

    Now what this movie really needed was an empath that tracks her journey, occasionally saying things like “She’s scared.” or “Something bad happened here…”

  6. ThereWolf says :

    I’m still torn on this one too.

    But I will say out of all the films I’ve watched recently, this is the one that has stuck in my mind (and nothing to do with free minky). I think I mentioned it awhile ago – it’s hypnotic, intriguing and boring all at the same time!

    The scenes you picked out are spot on – the beach in particular, coz you think biker guy is going to make sure the toddler is safe at the very least… It sums up the coldness of the film.

    And the scene, in the belly of the house, when one of the victims ‘bursts’ (for want of a better word) and his empty, free-floating remains swirl in the goop… thought that was more disturbing than anything I’ve seen in any recent horror/supernatural movie.

    Good review, Jarv.

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