Under the Skin is a highly ambitious film. It impresses so much in its opening half hour, setting up expectations that it ultimately struggles to live up to. True ambition is an admirable and rare quality to find in contemporary cinema and there is no denying the ambitious nature of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Despite the film’s slight problems, it succeeds in being genre-less. What I presumed to be a science fiction film transpired to be a horrifying and hypnotic experience like no other. The closest thing I can compare it to is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour, another film that places its audience in a simultaneous state of uncertainty and tranquillity. The science fiction genre is beginning to regain some energy and excitement thanks to films like Carruth’s and films as intoxicating and experimental as Under the Skin. Jonathan Glazer, who has directed only two other feature films prior to this, was discussed in the trailer for Under the Skin as being “an heir to Kubrick” and, admittedly, this had an instant influence over my desire to see the film. I tire of people’s snobbery towards contemporary cinema and those who hold an unrealistic romanticism for the cinema of the sixties. It is the work of the French new-wave movement that I find the most irritatingly over-hyped, over-discussed and ultimately overrated. Yet, when I sit and re-watch 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Shining I can’t help but deny that they just don’t make them like they used to. Or, more to the point, nobody is making, or has made, horror and science fiction films like Kubrick ever did.
Under the Skin certainly holds a light to this cinematic master. Glazer tells his story artistically with a certain flare that reflects Kubrick’s film’s mysticism and beauty. When it’s at its best, Under the Skin is a symphonic work of art; a poetic film bursting with the weird and the unusual. The film revolves around Scarlett Johansson’s character who I don’t think we ever learn the name of. She is credited as ‘Laura’ but I don’t recall having found this out, and I walked out of the screening less than an hour ago. The plot is surprisingly simple. An alien form, disguised as a woman, feasts on male hitch-hikers and unfortunate loners that she meets in Glasgow. We follow Johansson’s character around the city as she seeks out her victims, one after the other. The hunts for her victims are occasionally filmed by Glazer and his team on secret cameras. Although some actors were used, others we see approaching the woman’s white van are unaware, innocent members of the general public. This technique, although sometimes off-putting, succeeds in placing Johansson in the same position as her character; a Hollywood starlet, disguised in order to interact naturally on the rainy, grey streets of Scotland.
The film’s sound is its most successful and most ambitious quality. The soundtrack is eerie, majestic and unpredictable just like the film itself. The high quality of the film’s soundtrack is, like so many other elements of the film, a tad distracting. The sound is exceptional but fails to merge with the action like a successful soundtrack should – it remains a marvellous soundtrack but not a successful one, cinematically. The film loses its way somewhere around the eighty minute mark. Or perhaps it maintains its way but fails to hold on to the audience. There is a lot to be admired in Glazer’s on-screen nightmare, the first being Johansson herself. She gives a solid performance that seems to contain so little but requires so much. Still, Under the Skin is far from being a perfect movie. Any film that includes the beloved “jar, spoon, spoon, jar” sketch by Tommy Cooper is alright in my books but Under the Skin lacks refinement and consistency. That said, I really really liked this film and I really really respect it.
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