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Under the Skin (2014) Review

Updated on May 21, 2014

Straight off, I’ll have it known that this was my introduction to Jonathan Glazer’s work. My only expectations came from the mysteriously gorgeous trailer, and the rave reviews splattered all over the posters and in my favorite websites. I’d even seen the word ‘Kubrickian’ thrown around. Needless to say, I was excited to witness an independent filmmaker succeed at such a stark and daring subject matter. For this reason, unfortunately, the film was better before I saw it, as an idea rather than a self-and-marketing-inflated “art film.”

First, I want to say that there are problems when conceiving and defining an “art film,” or “Kubrickian,” and especially when the two are being associated. I don’t intend to solve them here. But I will say that anti-traditional narrative structure, drawn-out shots, and striking visuals in themselves do not make a film “Kubrickian,” or really artistically important in any bigger sense. It’s aesthetic fetishization, and it’s a trend, not daring. There’s nothing wrong with these elements when you have something to say, and when they’re used to a specific end. But simply fracturing a painting of your face does not make you Picasso. So let’s get to the meat of it, then.

Some reviews praise the movie’s exploration of “what it means to be human.” I see where this may have come from; Scarlett Johansson spends a lot of time staring at people on the street and observing their reactions to her, and makes some interesting changes to her behavior toward the end of the film. Plus, she spends a lot of time staring at herself naked—her human skin, see? There are two problems with this: 1) We never learn anything about where she’s come from, or who or what she is; this is not a problem in itself, but it is when you’re trying to conjecture character development from a character whose potential for development you know nothing about. You start making broad assumptions about extraterrestrial consciousness’ likeness to humans’, and frankly, that’s cheap. 2) An onlooker’s long gaze at people’s behavior on the street does not constitute an exploration on the meaning of human life any more than does Johansson’s perfect nude body. It constitutes a preoccupation with flesh hiding a lack of understanding of humanity. Especially when all the flesh is white. And ages 20-35. And middle-class. And Scottish. So let’s not blow up the importance of this theme here.

Let’s look at the film’s other “merits,” then. It’s been praised for its lack of traditional narrative structure. But so what? This isn’t new or brave, especially when there’s no reason behind it. There’s no real psychological effect besides unpredictability, which is another cheap thrill when nothing is being said. It meanders, lost in a search for its own importance. Long takes? So what? What are you making us focus on, and why? Johansson’s eyes in a rear-view mirror? A baby crying for its dead parents on the beach? A little tasteless, maybe, rather than challenging. What about the dialogue? It’s sparse, and isn’t really needed anyway. But, again, too much silence isn’t insightful, or “meditative” as I’ve seen it put, if nothing is happening in the subtext. There's nothing to "meditate" on.

What we’re left with at this point is a film with a few trippy visual moments and a blandish lead performance masquerading as “stoic.” Johansson is a great actress, but she is best when electric, and not suited for roles that communicate a lot through a stiff disposition, like, say, Robin Wright. Essentially, we have here a poor, but pretty, horror film blown up with self-importance and self-indulgence. Its title is meant to intrigue us, but ultimately sets up a failed mission: it never really gets under our skin, and gets even less under its own.

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