Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Under the Skin

Film: Under the Skin
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

When the new 1001 Movies book came out and I saw that I had just four movies to watch to finish for the year, I planned to end with Under the Skin. This is, after all, a science fiction movie with horror elements, two genres that tend to be overlooked on the 1001 Movies list in general. It’s a movie I’d heard a lot good about, it having received a great deal of universal acclaim. I like to end October with a bunch of horror movies anyway, so it seemed like a natural fit. What could go wrong, right?

What could go wrong is that the emperor could have no clothes. I’m certain that our filmmaker here has some deep meaning attached to this film, but I’ll be damned if I know what the hell it is. Under the Skin is almost certainly an allegory of some sort, but an allegory only works if your audience can actually figure out what the meaning is. Sadly, Under the Skin is almost completely opaque in that respect. This is not a film that offers much to the viewer in terms of help. It also doesn’t offer much in terms of entertainment.

Under the Skin isn’t a film that summarizes well, but I’ll do my best here. A woman who is evidently also an alien (Scarlett Johansson) arrives on Earth and hangs around Scotland picking up guys by implying sex. However, once she gets these guys back to where she lives—evidently a vast, limitless room filled with black mirrors and lit by an unknown source, the men sink into the floor and into some amorphous liquid. Then the woman gets dressed again and goes out looking for more guys. She is evidently assisted in this by a dude who drives around on a motorcycle (Jeremy McWilliams).

Evidently, the best way to pick up guys in Scotland is to ask them for directions. The one thing I’ll suggest that the film gets right is the number of times the woman is unsuccessful in her hunting. That doesn’t make for exciting movie viewing, but from what I know about the success rates of a typical predator, it’s at least accurate.

I’m going to make a distinction here that will seem like I’m splitting hairs, but I think the distinction is important. There are movies that I watch and don’t understand, and I think those movies fall into two categories. One category are films that I can see glimmers of something where I feel like I might actually get to the heart of something with another watch or with some conversation. These movies tend to make me feel stupid, but I can at least respect the attempt. There are other movies that put up a façade of having something to say but are really just navel gazing and faux philosophical noodling that nonetheless offer an impression of great depth and hidden meaning. Under the Skin is this second sort.

There may actually be some meaning here. I might be willing to be convinced that Under the Skin is a sort of cinematic Rorschach test that allows a viewer to impart a meaning onto the film, and that a variety of readings can be mapped onto what is there. I just don’t think it’s the case. More to the point, I think this is a film that started with the idea of making something spooky and with a particular look, creating an upsetting and spectral soundtrack, and didn’t really get any further.

Am I willing to take this to its full conclusion? I’ll go close to it. I don’t think there’s any meaning here, or at least there isn’t any meaning for me. I suspect that at least some of those who call this a triumph and one of the best films of 2013 are bluffing because they’re afraid of saying that they don’t get an incomprehensible film. Well, I’m not afraid of looking stupid or like a Philistine. I don’t think there’s any “there” there. This is a stylish nothing, a series of opaque events that claim to tell a story. This is a naked emperor parading the cinematic streets with the added negative that one of the film’s crasser selling points (Scarlett Johansson does nude!) has that naked emperor poorly lit in displaying that very nakedness.

I will take this to one conclusion that I have hit on in the past. Under the Skin is the sort of film that gives film critics a bad name. Critics, unable to say “I don’t get it,” almost universally tout this film as being a mesmerizing and singular vision. The public goes into this thinking they’ll see something unique and instead get stylized nothing, and the entire idea of film criticism takes a step backwards.

Under the Skin isn’t scary, funny, surprising, haunting, or anything else. It’s a series of long, slow shots during which nothing happens, slow pans where even less happens, and unintelligible events that add up to a cipher. What it is instead is dull, pointless, and irritating. Shame on the listmakers for including this over dozens of other films that would have been better placed here that didn’t spend 108 minutes of my time sniffing its own artistic exhaust. Let the clove cigarette and beret crowd discuss the deep meaning of this over espresso. I frankly have better things to do.

But hey, I'm done with the 1001 Movies list for the next 11 months.

Why to watch Under the Skin: Everybody says you should.
Why not to watch: This emperor has no clothes.


  1. You gave this an even worse rating that I did and I caught some mild flack for mine. Here were my comments on it:

    A few months back I used Letterboxd to build a list of the most popular film of each year that I had not yet seen. Under the Skin was the one for 2013. Let's be honest, though - the reason this movie is so popular is because of Scarlett Johansson doing nude scenes in it. First, the positive: there are a lot of interesting visuals in the film, and no, that's not a reference to Johansson. In fact, all of her nude scenes are poorly lit. That makes them more "artistic". Second, the somewhat negative: this is a slow moving film. It's the kind of movie where the director spends 2 minutes showing someone walk down a flight of stairs...and...very...carefully...step...on... (you get the idea). Now slow moving can be fine, except that the scenes in this film are heavily repetitive. A sizable chunk of the movie consists of Johansson driving around and asking for directions. Third, the big negative: the score is extremely annoying. I mean seriously fucking annoying. I finally just hit mute and turned the subtitles on to get away from the sound. 2 stars

    1. I figure I'll catch a little hell for this. I'm okay with that.

      I agree with pretty much everything you've said. The soundtrack didn't bother me as much as it did you, but the rest I'm with you entirely.

  2. Oh no, I fall into your 'giving critics a bad name' category! I was enthralled by the film; and being a straight woman, I didn't find the nude images of Ms Johansson hugely appealing.

    If I can offer any reason for my interest in the film, I did see (amongst other things) a hunter/ hunted storyline. 'The Girl' starts off as the hunter, with her faux fur coat, prowling around in her van, selecting men. Then, half way through there is a swap, and she becomes vulnerable (or chooses to be so). I read into it that her character, from whatever state of being she is from, was forced to do what she did, and halfway through decides to rebel. She is not human, so begins to wonder what it is about her that is appealing, as opposed to the man she picks up but doesn't keep.

    There are also interesting gender plays; the white van is usually the preserve of men. I think the whole is a look at beauty, and how it is used and abused in society, without people wondering what is actually underneath.

    I didn't think the film was perfect, but I thought it was very, very good. It is certainly one I wish to see again. But, as with all things, you are perfectly entitled to hate it; in fact, this film is one of those ones where either you love it or hate it.

    And who knows, you might be right, and the director is just laughing at people like me!

    1. I never begrudge people what they like and dislike, for what it's worth. There are plenty of times I've been on the other side of this sort of debate, where I've defended the film that someone else claims is meaningless critic fodder.

      I get the idea of gender reversal here, but I also think it's the sort of thing where the director may have decided that's what it's about once somebody mentioned it to him. Evidently, the film makes a lot more sense if you've read the book, but I think that's a cop-out. If the film doesn't stand on its own, it's failed.

      But again, that's just my opinion.

    2. I completely agree about a film standing on its own. For disclosure's sake, I haven't read the book, though now want to.

      I had a similar reaction to the film Tabu (the 2012 one), which was a critical darling a few years ago. I watched it and thought, Really? It's fine and all, but second best film of the year, as some voted it? Not for me!

  3. Ouch! This hurt since I really do love this film. For me, part of its appeal IS that I don't fully understand, or at least I know that my interpretation is one of many that could be made. Therefore, I think calling it a "cinematic Rorschach test" is actually accurate. Part of its appeal for me is that I don't get it, at least not in a way that I can say my reading is the definitive one, but still find plenty there to hang onto. My full review:

    1. Yeah, I expect to take some grief for this. Under the Skin, at least for me, commits the cardinal sin of a film--I found it dull as well as incomprehensible.

      I can live with incomprehensible if there's something for me to latch onto. This didn't have that for me.

  4. I'm more in the middle on Under the Skin, though probably less thrilled than many. I found a lot of the imagery to be unsettling, particularly the scene with the baby. I also was intrigued by Johansson's cold performance. That said, I didn't really enjoy watching it. Also, I'm inclined to think you may be onto something with your reaction on the meaning. I gave it 3 stars on Letterboxd because it left an impression, but I'm in no hurry to watch it again.

    1. I liked the visual look of the film. I didn't like anything else about it. I figured, honestly, that I'd get a lot more grief here.

      I can understand a 3-out-of-5 review. What I can't understand is all of the "it's the second coming of cinema" love it's getting.

  5. I really did like the score, the visuals, and the alienation (pun intended).
    I really didn't like the monotony, the loose ends, and the overall lack of storyline.

    All in all, ok though a little meh. Definitely not one of the best of that (or any) year, and definitely not book-worthy.