If the goal of good art is to provoke emotion and thought, all while looking gorgeous, then Under the Skin is the artiest art that ever arted an art. By that, I mean that it definitely comes across as an “art film,” and that it’s also a really, really good art film. Whether you’re here to try to figure out everything it has to offer, or you just want to see some interesting visuals, you’re going to get something out of Under the Skin.
At its core, the film is about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who drives around Scotland, luring single men into her home and then capturing them for her leader. That’s what happens for the majority of the film. She’ll drive around for a while, find a target, learn if he is married or if he has a family, and if he’s relatively unattached, she will seduce him, get him to strip naked, and then … well, something happens. It certainly seemed as if the men she found were captured and transformed into something else, but in a film as visually dynamic and unique as this one, it could — in reality, at least — be something similar but not identical to what I just described.
It’s almost a spoiler to say that Scarlett Johansson’s character is an alien, as that’s not overtly stated until right near the end. Those of you who pay attention will understand it beforehand, and her character’s origins matter in trying to figure out just what the heck Under the Skin is about. And I think most people who watch this movie will want to try to figure out what it’s about. It’s a thinking movie. Gorgeous, too, but also thought-provoking.
See, this is a film that different people are going to interpret very differently, and that’s part of the fun. Is the film simply about observing humanity through the eyes of someone without care for our species? Does it speak solely to how easily men are manipulated by an attractive woman? Or, given how the only “growth” the lead character has comes from her beginning to enjoy “being human,” is the film sympathetic toward humanity, viewing us in a positive light? The thing is, it might be all of these or none of these, but the viewer is going to take something from it regardless.
It has something to say about the human condition. It has multiple things to say. Sure, the way you interpret it is going to be different depending on who you are and what you bring into the film, but if you see it with a friend, they’re going to see it differently. You can then talk, learn, and grow. This is the type of film that does that for you.
Under the Skin also works well if you don’t want to think, although I can see how some people might find it somewhat boring and repetitive if that’s the case. The first two-thirds of the film are variations on the same meet-seduce-kill scenario, which doesn’t really advance the plot and only results in a small amount of character growth. Some of the film’s unique — I’ve never seen some of the shots like the ones shown here in a film before — visuals pop up out of nowhere and might be confusing if you’re not thinking along with the film. It can take a few scenes to gel with it, but after the first few moments — including a gorgeous opening scene — you should be good to go.
I think that once you’re moving at the same rhythm as Under the Skin, you become spellbound. There are certain films that can do that — where everything has you on the edge of your seat and you never even consider thinking that your time could be better spent elsewhere — and that’s how I felt while watching Under the Skin. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t entertained, and not a scene that I thought needed to be trimmed. If anything, I wanted more.
There are stories out there how many of the people who appear in Under the Skin are not trained actors, but random people who were approached on the street and then ambushed with release papers. If that’s true — and it very well could be — the naturalistic performances given by the supporting cast makes a lot of sense. It really does feel as if these are just random people who were chatting with this woman. At least, until they strip naked and are taken into the black abyss.
Scarlett Johansson is fantastic in the lead role, turning in what might be the performance of her career as the seductive alien. The small nuances she brings to the role — the way she has to try to develop her character through stares and minor head movements is astonishing — mixed in with an unnatural English accent and a stare that gives off a wave of curiosity and confidence gives her a lot to do to pull this role off, and she does it wonderfully.
Under the Skin is likely going to be a polarizing film. It’s a visual marvel and a thinking-man’s best friend, but for some it’s going to be too slow and repetitive. Different people might come away from it with vastly different interpretations of what it has to say, but for me, it’s a treat to watch a movie like this. It has a lot of depth, some great acting, unique visuals, and interesting themes and topics to discuss afterward. It’s not one you’re going to forget about any time in the near future. It is great art.