Under the Skin is, no doubt, a troubling film. Many critics have hailed it as a masterpiece of the medium, triumphing its striking cinematography and meticulously constructed visual narrative. I don’t hope to undermine these aspects of the film, as they are certainly nothing short of remarkable. There’s no doubt that Under the Skin is a feast for the eyes. But, as my eyes ate up the spectacle and chomped down on the vistas, my mind starved. At its best, it is unsettling. At its worst, it feels watered down, disjointed, and sporadically paced.
The film follows an otherworldly Scarlett Johansson’s predatory search for men on the fringe of society. Driving through Edinburgh, preying on unsuspecting hitchhikers, Johansson seduces the men and brings them back to her secluded, dilapidated abode. Therein, she strips down to her underwear, and lures them into shiny black goo for… reasons unexplained. Her victims become preserved in the reflective goop, until they… uh.. pop. Loudly. Then, after picking up a disfigured man, Scarlett expresses remorse for whatever it is that she’s doing, and abandons her course to gallivant around the Scottish countryside. Consequently, four anonymous motorcyclists, who are hinted to be collaborators in her ambiguous alien activity, pursue her. A few indulgent sequences later, the film ends with no resolution, clarification, or purpose.
I suppose that is my biggest critique of the film: it simply fails to go anywhere in particular. Its ambience and visual scope is impressive, but fails to carry the story single-handedly. There simply isn’t enough in the film that warrants emotional involvement outside of the nicely constructed visual motifs.
That said, the journey is definitely an experience. Glazer achieves some incredible sequences of abstract beauty, and many of those moments completely took me out of my seat and placed me firmly in the realm of the imagined. The opening shot inspired wonder, and intrigued me, and my intrigue was held up until the moment I realised that it was never to be satisfied. In addition, the candid shots of Edinburgh gave the film a real sense of striking realism, which played nicely next to the sequences of absolute abstraction. The continual dialogue between light and dark, though a trite visual conceit, was well realised and was well developed throughout.
As diluted as the story is, there are some deeply impactful moments, most notably in the first half of the film, when I was still under the impression that it was all building to something. One scene in particular stands out as the zenith of the slogging suspense. Attempting to seduce a Czech surfer, Scarlett the Alien sees a family swept out to sea, leaving behind a wailing toddler. It was genuinely harrowing seeing the child left behind, and as is to be expected, the film pulled no punches in making me feel all squirmy inside. The problem is, this uneasiness only ever arose in brief instances, and failed to give the film uniformity and undermined its vision.
Overall, Under the Skin is an occasionally unsettling, ultimately unfulfilling exploration of the filmic medium. It contains stunning aesthetics, but underwhelming storytelling. There are a few gems hidden in this sea of slick black goo, but I’m not sure it’s worth getting swallowed up to find them.