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Under the Skin

On the rough coast of Scotland, in what is definitely a no-swimming area, a dog swims after a ball and gets caught in the rip tide.  He is drifting farther and farther out into violent waves, swimming hard against the tide but losing ground.  A boy jumps in to save him.  Then a man jumps in to save the boy.  Another man, an experienced swimmer in a wetsuit, goes after the man, drags him back to shore, but the man just immediately goes after the boy again.  A toddler sits on the shore and screams.  This is all filmed from a distance.  We don’t know these characters; we are only observers to this tragedy.  We know without a doubt that anyone who gets very far into that water is going to die. It’s just the way it is.

This scene is in the middle of the film that seemingly has nothing to do with the rest of what’s happening, except that perhaps it perfectly embodies, the mysterious, horrifying yet captivating tone of the film.  Almost nothing is explained in “Under the Skin,” so we’re going on my best guesses here. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien that puts on the skin of an attractive young woman, and seduces lonely young men and then… captures them.  Does she feed on them?  Are they put into a kind of zoo, or museum?  I don’t know. All that’s clear is that she uses their lust against them.

Until she encounters a young man whose face is disfigured… elephantiasis, maybe?  I’m not sure. But when she seduces him, when he is firmly in her trap… she lets him go.  This ultimately doesn’t change his fate – there’s a man on a motorcycle who is apparently there to clean up any mistakes she makes, and he clearly sees this as a mistake – but it completely changes hers.  Now she is a fugitive in a strange world, trying to figure out how to make her way. It doesn’t end well for her, either.

Scarlett Johansson plays aggressively against type here, while perhaps also commenting on the type of actress she has been for the last ten years. Is there another actress in Hollywood who has garnered so much attention, so many A-list roles, without ever having to really act? I’m not calling her a bad actress, I’m saying that, until recently, I wouldn’t really be able to say whether she can act or not, because almost always, when she is on the screen, that’s all that’s demanded of her – to be on the screen.  She looks great, but a lot of actresses look great. There’s something, some kind of magnetism about her, that’s hard to define, but it makes directors want to cast her, and audiences, especially male ones, want to watch her. Whatever it is, it isn’t what I would call acting.

And so it is interesting to me that this is the first movie (to my knowledge) in which she has done a nude scene.  She is seen examining her own body in a mirror, perhaps wondering exactly where and why men find it so alluring, why curves and softness can cause men to voluntarily walk into their own destruction. Her one attempt at actually consummating a relationship ends shockingly, because, while she looks like a woman, she isn’t actually – she’s just wearing a woman’s skin.  Really, there is so much about “Under the Skin” that can be interpreted as a commentary on our fetishized relationship with Hollywood celebrities like Johansson.

I don’t know if that’s the filmmaker’s intent, or just my lens. On one level, this is a well-made, very otherworldly independent film about aliens who kill people.  Maybe that’s all it’s meant to be.  I don’t know.



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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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