Friday, July 18, 2014


Under The Skin is perhaps the most self-consciously artsy horror film since The Hunger (1983). It drips with odd lighting effects, and dreamlike imagery, while enigmatic characters wander about the Scottish countryside. But for a movie bold enough to cast Scarlett Johansson as an alien feasting on male victims, the whole event is rather sexless and dull.

Some moments hint at what could have been. The opening scene, for instance, which appears to represent Johansson's birth, is fascinating, just a slowly evolving blob that turns into an eyeball, while we hear Johansson's voice trying out words and sounds, as if she's learning to speak simultaneously with her body taking shape. There's also a fellow on a motorcycle who seems to be Johansson's partner in this, helping her gather victims so that she may do her strange business.  I don't know what she does, exactly. I suppose she drains them of their essence - we see one of them evaporate from within, until he's nothing but a floating Kleenex.  And it's all murky and in slow motion, so it's all the more freaky for us little folks in the audience.

Johansson drives around Glasgow in a dirty white van, picking up hitchhikers and bringing them to some strange location that might be in her mind (or their mind?) where they sink into a liquid and disappear. Or something. Where did she get the van? How did she learn to drive it? I couldn't tell you.

One scene involves her meeting a man on a beach. She hits him in the head with a rock and drags him away. This particular scene is carried out with the same dull persistence of a seagull working over a crab. Another moment involves her picking up a young man who suffers from a physical deformity. This scene almost leads somewhere, as Johannson appears to take some pity on him. But ultimately, like most of the movie's scenes, it evaporates without getting anywhere...


With her messy black hair,  heavy eye liner, overdone lips, and ragged fur coat, Johansson seemed less like an alien and more like Cillian Murphy's drag queen in Breakfast on Pluto.   She wanders around, staring at things, chatting up her victims in an accent that sounds like one of the Spice Girls. She occasionally strips nude, and her curvy little body is supposed to be an irresistible enticement to the dumb Scottish lads who fall into her trap. Director Robert Glazer bathes her in all sort of blues and reds, which is striking at times but eventually starts to feel as if Johansson is standing next to a lava lamp.  I suppose the big influence here is The Man Who Fell To Earth  (1977), another movie that had some interesting visuals but didn't amount to much. David Bowie played the alien in that one, and I'll give Johansson this much credit: she's slightly better at the alien thing than Bowie. But that's not saying much.

There's a quote about fame that is attributed to Elvis Presley, something about "I felt like a prized cow that had been penned up. I figured, what the hell, I'll just graze." I thought of that quote while watching Under The Skin, for Johansson seems to be at a point in her career where she's grazing. She wanders from part to part, a comic book movie here, a romantic comedy there, like a bored bee sampling flowers. Now she seems to be in a sci-fi groove. She played the computer voice in Her, and is soon to play a kind of super human in Luc Bresson's Lucy. Why doesn't she just do the remake of Barbarella and get it over with? 
As for Under The Skin, it's all tinsel and no tree. I will grant that the scene where Johansson sheds her skin to reveal what she looks like underneath has an unexpected melancholy to it, and the movie's end is imbued with an elegiac beauty, but I'm not in line with some observers who have praised it as one of the top films of the year. I think it's a bunch of fancily wrapped fluff. Fifty years ago, it would have been a cheap drive-in flick made by Roger Corman, it would have been called The Astounding She Monster, and it would have been twice as fun and more successful. Or depending on how you feel about such things, just as bad.

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