TIFF 2013: Under the Skin (2013)
It’s essentially a foregone conclusion that everyone on this planet has a fear of something or someone. Anyone who tells you different or that they are fearless is down-right idiotic, lying, or inhuman. To fear is to live. Now, you’ve got your typical fears of sensible, common, physical things, for example: spiders, ghosts, storms, clowns, etc… Then, there are psychological trepidations such as: social anxiety, heights, being alone…things that are a little bit harder to understand and empathize with. Regardless however, for the most part, the things that draw the ire of our dread can be avoided, accepted, tolerated. And for the most part we can continue living day-to-day without our fears ruling over our existence. That being said, the majority of us have a fear that exceeds all bounds of comprehension, rationality, and common sense. They leave us inconsolable, paralyzed…just a complete wreck. Not everyone has despair this extreme, but the ones who do know what a nightmare it can be.
Now, you’re all probably wondering to yourselves, “what does this have to do with the review?” Well, it just so happens that my unbearable fear, I’d even go as far as to call it a phobia, happens to be aliens. You know, the kind that travel amongst the stars, searching for habitable planets or resources and settle into Earth to begin exterminating us. It’s quite ironic actually, I’m an avid stargazer and enjoy being an amateur astronomer, cosmologist if you will. So I’m rather knowledgable when it comes to the cosmos, therefore completely convinced that extraterrestrial life exists and have come to peace with it. I am aware that the way these foreign creatures are depicted in films, novels, and media is inaccurate and for the most part is just science fiction being science fiction. Yet somehow, it still manages to make my skin crawl. So you can imagine how conflicted I was being a cinephile aching to see “Under the Skin.” While the film doesn’t portray alien life to the same negative extreme as sci-fi epics such as “War of the Worlds.” It still consists of a foreign life form consuming and ending human lives…so I was a little weary.
Nonetheless, we are here. I watched the film at TIFF and survived the experience. To be honest, it wasn’t even as bad as I originally anticipated. I concluded it to be because the alien was cloaked in Scarlett Johansson’s skin. And if I was to be murdered, then digested by an extraterrestrial, I’d prefer it to be at the hands of one who looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson. Not to mention, I’d manage to find a way to come to peace with the fact that the last thing I saw was Mrs. Johansson completely naked…but that’s besides the point. The film is, in my opinion, quite remarkable. It’s a highly visual, highly artistic exploration into this typically high-budgeted, explosion-filled science-fiction trope. It is, without question the most unique film I experienced at this years festivities and I officially dub it my sleeper hit of the festival…if that means anything to anyone at all.
Based on the novel of the same title by Michel Faber, “Under the Skin” tells the tale of an alien sent by a massive corporation from her home planet to capture unimportant, family-less, lonely hitchhikers. She is then to return them for fattening and sale as human meat is a delicacy on her planet. But believe me, it offers so much more than this disturbing premise in the sense of underlying themes and content. The story is one of the more intriguing, intelligible aspects of the film. Touching upon several significant, socio-political, and controversial topics: humanity, mercy, farming, sex, and business morals being the most prominent. Although, in my opinion, the film could have better explored and expanded these themes, much the same as Faber’s novel did. Jonathan Glazer, the director of “Under the Skin” does a sublime job packing in all the lyricism, relevance, and symbolism from its source into the hour and forty minute runtime.
Set in the Scottish countryside, “Under the Skin” has no shortage of serene, stunning scenery. It is immaculately captured by Glazer, who superlatively masks the vibrancy and naturally enthralling element of northern Scotland and drenches it with the dreary, shadowed nature of the film. Visually, it might appear all doom and gloom, but there is something uplifting, chilling about its epic atmosphere. Alongside, Glazer accompanies his complex, hypnotic story and dark setting with an entrancing, terrifying score composed by Mica Levi. The soundtrack really completes the film’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” feel with its ominous tones and horrifyingly abrupt shifts. No doubt, if you prefer the lack of emotion and drama in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it’s subtle intellect and deceptiveness. “Under the Skin” will serve as an excellent update to a sub-genre that’s recently lost its way.
For the most part “Under the Skin” relies on the beauty and seductiveness of its female lead, played by the aforementioned Scarlett Johansson. Who, I forgot to mention is unfathomably stunning here, both physically and in her portrayal. She elegantly captures the dark, at times satirical humour of the film drawn on by awkward encounters and familiarizing herself with our planet’s customs, not to mention her own body. However, as impressive and memorable as her physical and socially inept performance may be. Watching her stoic, cold-blooded alien transform into an emotionally conscious and understanding being is the highlight of the film without question. Apart from Johansson, “Under the Skin” is practically void of a cast, which makes her portrayal all the more amazing. Nevertheless, the supporting ensemble, despite not being on screen for more than 5 minutes individual, do a fantastic job selling the premise and evoking strong reactions.
Deeply intelligent, highly visual, and featuring an outstanding performance from Scarlett Johansson. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is one of the films to watch out for in 2014 and is sure to be a cult smash. I recommend it be infused into the science fiction canon.
Under the Skin: 9 out of 10.