I finally caught up with Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin 2013 film starring Scarlet Johansson and really enjoyed it. (I liked it so much that last night I had a series of nightmares about zombies attacking a wooded neighborhood that I lived.) Good films, for me, cause you to question and don't hand you the meaning of every single scene, character and theme. Glazer's film puts the audience in an extremely limited position: We see Johansson's character going through the motions of picking up men, seducing them and bringing them home and finding out what she then does to them. We don't know why or how. The film specifically keeps answers about her origins and purpose from us and I applaud that.
We can see the events that are transpiring on screen, but we don't know the why behind it all. If films of this sort turn you off, then I suspect that you'll dislike this one. The traditional narrative that American films play out to death is not of importance here. Glazer isn't concerned to show the details to his audience. Instead we're left to guess and fill in the blanks to our own liking.
When I sat down to watch the film last night, I had only the general premise that came out in the trailer and I had listened to the Filmspotting.net review. I knew that Scarlet Johansson played an alien who came to Earth to pick up men and that something sinister happened to them and that's about it. I'll not go into the details of the film here because I think knowing too much would ruin the film.
What I'd rather focus on is one of the main themes of the film. What does is really mean to be human? How does one become human or express human tendencies? Before I write about that, I did want to express my disinterest in the female man-eater theme that some reviews focus on. I did not compare this movie in the likes of Hard Candy. I can understand the desire to interpret this mystifying film into a role reversal in which the woman is the sexual predator who gobbles up her prey, but that's not what I find important in this film. To me, the why/how of what Johansson's character is doing is a subplot and doesn't hit at the core of what I believe this movie is about.
But there are a few tell-tale signs in the film that play out dispassionately on screen by an expressionless and confused Johansson. Glazer's choice of Johansson for the main role is well-served. I've been following her career since 2001's Ghost World and for those who only know her as the Black Widow in The Avengers and Captain America might want to do a little digging and harken back to her roles in Match Point, Lost in Translation and Vicky Christina Barcelona.
In the public eye, Johansson has been named the "world's sexiest woman" in 2013 by Esquire magazine yet Glazer shows Johansson in a different light. There are several scenes in which she stares into a mirror and looks at her body but we see her blemishes and curves in an erotic yet more realistic light. There is no photo shopping done in this film or CGI to cover up the normality of Johansson's looks. In close up shots of her face, we can see her pores and imperfections. Her character marvels at the body she has and there is a pay off at the end in which there's some information given to the audience for what the movie could be all about, but she's not flawless. She's not embodding her public persona in this film, but is almost playing an anti- version of herself.
Without Johansson's expressionless stare and often odd reactions, I don't know if the movie would be as thought provoking. We're watching a blank slate become filled with what the world is around her. She's constantly absorbing and learning and growing, but we don't know why or what for. To some, her expressionless stare and few lines of dialogue might turn off many a viewer, but I enjoyed her stripped down performance. Yes, it's minimalistic, but there's a reason to that. My personal favorite scene is her walking out of a house and she stops to look at herself in the mirror. Glazer's movie is no American scare flick with creatures or surprises popping out to frighten the audience. He holds his camera still, taking in Johansson's reflection in a dirtied mirror, zooming in to slowly show her eyes, her mouth and expressionless stare.
We're not told what is going through her mind but are only shown the after effects of the decisions she makes. By piecing together her actions over the course of the film, a narrative can be constructed that shows her journey from blank slate to questioning her identity. Who is she? What is she? She's looking for the same answers as we the audience. Johansson's deft experience in navigating through a deceptively simple set of actions is layered over time with her searching and questioning.
In a scene that launched a meme that encircled the world late last year, Johansson falls down while walking down the street. After her fall, Glazer places the camera against her face so that you can only see the side of her face and hair. We experience the fall from her perspective and can here the muffled sound of strangers asking her if she is okay. Instead of moving through the scene quickly, Glazer holds the camera there for a few seconds and Johansson finally allows herself to be pulled up by the help of strangers. She appears confused and yet her expressionless stare returns quickly, but the camera zooms back and we see her lost in a sea of humanity. A stranger falls, is helped by strangers and then everyone continues on their day.
The complexity of the scene could be easily overlooked in its simplicity, but it's in stark contrast to a scene earlier in the film in which Johansson's character is given a choice. Her pragmatic solution in dealing with the scene unfolding around her earlier in the film is in stark contrast with what her fellow humans do to her after her fall. What does this all mean and should we even care? I believe that the levels of this film allow for many hours of discussion and can truly see why some have despised this film.
However, I believe Roger Ebert's review of Under the Skin, hits the right note when he compares parts of the film to Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening of this film is abstract and can be interpreted in many ways. What we are seeing is unclear and open to many readings. But what's more important is the journey that Johansson's character embarks. The first few opening minutes tie up nicely with the film's ending so that the two can be viewed in a complete circle, allowing for many iterations of the journey to be on display. And I like that because there isn't a clear cut answer to much of what we see in the film, but instead we need to internalize what Glazer shows us. Without giving away the ending, the final scene plays out nicely with the opening and enabled me to bridge the two together in a way that was fitting and did satisfy me.
If you're looking for a science fiction film that's not your typical shoot 'em up fare, give Under the Skin a viewing. If you like ambiguous films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, you're in for an intellectual treat that needs to be savored long after your viewing. Such a film that can cause such a strong reaction to me is well worth my time and dollars. I hope you feel the same.
Ron Vitale is the author of the Cinderella's Secret Diaries series who hopes that his own children will overcome any obstacles in their way and find their own happily ever after.