Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Microreview [film]: Under the Skin

A real, real slow exploration of Scarlett Johansson driving a van.

Amazon sent me an email the other day telling me that based on my sci-fi-leaning taste profile they thought I'd enjoy Under the Skin, which was now available on Amazon Prime. I thought nothing of it. When I launched the app to watch something else a day or so later, Under the Skin was the first thing I saw in the app, front-page promotional prime real estate. I thought "Man, they are pushing this thing hard."* So I read the synopsis. Scarlett Johansson is an alien that uses her sexy wiles to lure men to their doom. Ok, sure, Friday night, I'll give it a go. Why not?

Now, I'm not a guy who is scared away by a slow, inscrutable movie. I own Last Year at Marienbad, for Pete's sake. But man. Under the Skin really gave me a run for my money. Allow me to summarize the movie by halves: First Half: Scarlett drives a van, talks to guys on the street, if they appear to have no meaningful human connections in their immediate goings-on (aren't late for a meeting, say), then she picks them up, takes them back to her apartment/all-black void, where they both get undressed, and the guys disappear into a black lake of nothingness. Second Half: Scarlett tries to eat cake, but fails, falls into a mopey, silent, crippling depression, and then goes for a hike. Why the change between the two halves? Not sure.

The Internet is apparently of two minds on this film. One camp holds that this is vibrant, revelatory filmmaking that is unsettling, deeply moving, and a prime example of "film-as-art." The other camp holds that this is just some goddamn boring nonsense. I fall somewhere in between. Something about the movie fascinated me, and after finishing it I went back and re-watched the first 20 minutes to try to make more sense of what came after. It helped only slightly. On the other hand, I just think the filmmakers fundamentally missed the mark. Under the Skin gives us almost literally nothing in terms of character motivation, inner life, narrative drive, or the like to grab onto. In fact, the entire film seems to be building to the revelation that Scarlett is actually an alien, which is coincidentally disclosed in the summary and all marketing materials for the film. It's like in Yor, Hunter from the Future, where the big revelation is that Yor the Hunter is actually...yep, from the future. Or it would be like the description for <i>The Sixth Sense</i> reading "A ghost who doesn't know he's dead befriends a small boy who is able to speak with the spirit world." If the film had owned early on that Scarlett's an alien, and illuminated her struggle to fit in as a human (which I think is what's happening here), it feels like this could've been a much stronger movie. A few months ago, I talked about Shane Carruth's Upstream Color as a near masterpiece, and I feel like that movie — which is in many ways very similar to this film — hit every note perfectly that Under the Skin missed. So maybe opt for that one, instead.

Unless you're just dying to see Scarlett Johansson naked. In that case, by all means please watch this movie rather than trolling the Internet for stolen cell phone photos.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for so many Scottish accents!; +1 for absolutely beautiful cinematography

Penalties: -1 for total narrative obscurity; -1 for needing a spoiler alert in the movie's one-sentence description; -1 for a lack of character development/revelation

Cult Film Coefficient: 4/10, problematic, but has redeeming qualities.

Posted by — Vance K, resident lover of both good movies and unintentionally terrible ones, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

*I kept asking myself why Amazon is putting so much muscle behind such a strange, idiosyncratic movie, so I did some digging. Amazon signed an exclusive distribution deal with distributor A24 for the Amazon Prime streaming service, so whatever A24 releases (Spring Breakers, The Spectacular Now, The Bling Ring), expect Amazon to put front-and-center, regardless of objective quality or potential commercial appeal. Word to the wise.