If you ever wondered what 1995’s craptastic erotic sci-fi/horror Species would look like as an art-house flick, you’ve come to the right place.
Jonathan Glazer is the director extraordinaire of extremely unsettling moments captured on film. He helmed Sexy Beast, Birth, that Radiohead video that looks like a mental patient’s remake of Christine…
With Under the Skin, very loosely adapted from Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, Glazer takes a tired concept ripe for a mediocre sci-fi b-movie, evil alien disguised as a sexy woman (Scarlett Johansson) attracts strange men in order to harvest their organs, and turns it into an equally gorgeous and disturbing semi-masterpiece about the true burdens of being human.
I’m not going to lie, this material could have been turned into a spectacular 20-minute short, as is the case with many deliberately slow-paced minimalist art-house projects with little-to-no plot and dialogue. In this case, if you were so inclined to produce a fan edit of the film, you wouldn’t even need to get your hands on the dailies in order to cut the running time by at least half.
Many scenes pertaining to the story begin much before and end much after they should have in more mainstream editing terms and the film is chock full of nature glamour shots that doesn’t add much significance to the narrative, at least in a purely superficial sense. Under the Skin is at times frustrating, at times fascinating but always manages to remain a hypnotic experience.
There is a clear story and character arc here, only the structure is fairly lopsided as the first significant plot point that’s usually reserved for the first act break appears almost near the end. A great chunk of the first three quarters of the running time is reserved for long sequences of the alien preying on Scottish men utilizing a method most aliens use to hunt for human flesh: Driving around in a van and pretending to ask for directions.
As we watch the alien lure men to her hive and kill them over and over and over again, Glazer manages to avoid an episodic structure by revealing a small information concerning the alien’s method of extraction with each kill. This approach maintains our interest with every bizarre revelation.
That is, until we get to the final reveal regarding what really happens to these men, which delivers a sequence more terrifying than in any horror film I’ve seen in recent years. Some goes for a scene that would have me plead to new parents never to see this film, unless you really wish to be traumatized for at least the rest of the year.
There are also some inventive touches as Scarlet Johansson hits on real Scottish man, captured via hidden cameras inside her van. The resulting footage feels like Andrei Tarkovsky directing a Borat-style hidden camera feature.
After a tender and touching sequence, surprising and wholly welcome considering the film’s relentlessly cold tone up until that point, the alien is propelled into feeling empathy and desire for the creatures she’s meant to stalk. Her rogue quest for a modicum of humanity slowly prophesizes her downfall since, unfortunately and all to predictably, man turns out to be a comparatively ferocious beast.
One final note: There’s enough Scarlet Johansson nudity here to provide a lot of overtime hours for Mr. Skin employees. However, if your only motivation is to see her goodies, well… I guess you expect me to tell you not to waste your time but you know what? Go see it anyway. This is a daring, endlessly creative, terrifying and gorgeous film that deserves some of that Captain America cash.
Even if you’re bound to feel frustrated and pissed-off due to your unfamiliarity with Glazer’s work or the unusual narrative approach, you’re at least bound to walk out of it feeling some genuine and powerful emotions.