Monday, October 26, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 21: Under The Skin (2013)

One of the more frustrating aspects of human nature is the tendency to disparage and degrade a fashion or art form, and then turning around and praising it to high heaven when someone you approve starts doing the exact same thing.

I'm not talking about cultural appropriation: that's a far bigger conversation that should not be condensed into a footnote in the review of a movie that has nothing to do with it. No, I'm referring to something far more trivial--the tendency to take a B-movie concept and then make a critically acclaimed "art film" out of it.

I have nothing against "art films", per se. A rather funny thing to say, considering I once said to some fellow film majors that watching a Jean Luc Goddard film was like being made to watch someone masturbate--they're sure having fun and trying new things they like, but you're not getting much out of it. However, there are definitely films that could be dismissed as art films that I've loved. Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love is practically a plotless series of scenes, but every frame is so like a painting come to life that I don't mind.

Rather, as a B-Movie aficionado, I tend to look askance on my beloved genre films being disparaged. Think of it like how it's okay to mock someone you love endlessly, but if someone else does it you want to cave their skull in.

Well, when Peter Jackson was just a young, crazy New Zealander who was capable of making a film that runs under 3 hours, he made one of the greatest films ever: the live-action cartoon gorefest, Bad Taste. The title practically says it all, but it's the story of aliens coming to Earth and massacring an entire small town because humans are the new fast food sensation sweeping the galaxy.

Well, in the year 2000 a novelist named Michael Farber took a grain of that idea and used it as the basis for Under The Skin--a novel about a beautiful alien woman luring male hitchhikers in the Scottish countryside to an alien factory farm so they can be turned into an intergalactic delicacy. I have not read the novel, but while I am comparing it to Bad Taste it's merely because that's an easy point of comparison. The concept clearly draws from countless horror and exploitation sources, reportedly to make an overly belabored point about the evils of factory farming.

Naturally, because this pulp novel is "darkly satirical" it was heaped with praise. I would not be surprised to find it's no better than countless trashy horror novels I've read over the years, but alas I have not read it nor am I in that much of a hurry to. However, the book was loosely adapted into a film that also gained serious praise--and much of that praise came from relatively close friends whose opinions I trusted, some of whom had disliked the novel.

Upon seeing the film, I can definitely understand some of what drew them to the film so strongly. However, I'm going to have to play the uncultured contrarian.

The film opens with a lot of nonsense imagery of circles and spheres, while a female voice says random letters and words. Eventually the circles form into the pupil and iris of a human eye. So I will give the director credit that, at this point you can at least go, "Oh, this is the alien taking human form." I am not a fan of movies following scenes of black with harsh pure white light (which happens as the title card appears), however, so I'm tempted to just go back to calling it meaningless. Personal preference, but I don't care for my retinas being poked at.

We then cut to a motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) speeding through the Scottish countryside and through a tunnel--amusingly creating a "Through The Infinite" effect just via car lights reflecting on his helmet. He pulls off to the side of the road behind a parked white van. He then disappears into the darkness by the roadside before returning with the limp body of a young woman (Lynsey Taylor Mackay) slung over his shoulder. With nary a glance sideways to confirm he's not being watched, he loads her into the back of the van...

...and we jump cut to her dead body lying in a room of pure white. A naked woman (Scarlett Johnasson!), rendered practically a silhouette by the harsh whiteness, hurriedly undresses the corpse. Soon she has dressed herself in the dead woman's clothes and stands over her, observing a single tear rolling down the corpse's cheek. Then she picks an ant off of the corpse's belly and stares intently at it as it crawls on her hand.

Cut to an exterior of an apartment building shrouded in the gray clouds of early morning, as some odd lights above it dissipate. Inside the building, our Star-Girl (look, the IMDb credits her as just "The Female," so I need a better name than that) descends the stairs, doing quite well, considering she's an alien being asked to walk in heels. The motorcyclist unloads his bike from the back of the van, and Star-Girl climbs behind the wheel. After the motorcyclist departs, she drives away separately.

Star-Girl then wanders a mall, buying herself more clothes and make-up. All the better to make her a more enticing lure, I'm sure. Following this, the film burns several minutes of running time as Star-Girl drives around Glasgow, eyeing men for a plausible target. She asks one Scotsman for directions and I begin to feel sorry for our alien because without subtitles I can't even understand him and I didn't learn English last night.

Here I will pause to give the film mucho credit for the casting of Scarlett Johansson. Not only is Johansson a very underrated actress to begin with--too often dismissed as just another sex symbol--but the fact that we here have an American affecting an English accent works in the film's favor. She is, in actuality, an alien pretending to be something she's not. Especially given much of this film was shot guerrilla-style, with most of the people she encounters being regular folks who didn't even know they were being filmed.

"Pardon me; can you tell me where to find the Plot?"
Eventually, she successfully picks a young man up under the pretense of getting directions. After a bit of small talk, we cut to her alone in the van again. She eventually picks up another man (Joe Szula) and this time we see what happens to him. After some awkward flirting, she leads him to a dark apartment, the opposite of the white chamber from earlier--with a reflective surface for a floor. Inside the blackness, the two undress as they walk deeper into the darkness. He ends up naked before she does, and as he walks he begins to sink, obliviously, into some strange liquid. When she stops and turns to walk back and collect her clothes, he is nowhere to be seen.

More driving! This is like the travelogue stuff from Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster, but without the awesome rockin' soundtrack.

Eventually, we cut to a beach during the day. A couple and their toddler are sitting on the beach, while their dog plays in the surf. Given they're all wearing coats, that poor dumb dog must be freezing. Star-Girl watches them from nearby, but she's more interested in the man emerging from the waves in a wet suit (Kryštof Hádek). They make idle chit-chat, as he reveals he's a Czech who's living in a tent nearby, looking to get away from it all. Their chat is interrupted when the Czech notices the woman is floundering in the water, having swum out to fetch the dog. The man swims out to fetch his partner as the Czech rushes to the rescue.

Well, the dog and the woman disappear from view, but the Czech saves the man--only for the stupid bastard to turn and dive back in to drown himself. The exhausted Czech crawls ashore and Star-Girl calmly walks over--and brains him with a rock. She drags his body up the beach while the forgotten toddler screams for his dead parents. She oddly puts the body in her passenger seat (!) in order to drive him who knows where. At night, the motorcyclist packs up the Czech's tent and collects his towel, but leaves the toddler to the elements.

Star-Girl continues driving around. She gets out on foot to pursue a possible victim, but ends up carried along by a group of party girls and ends up in a club. She seems to enjoy it even less than I would, ultimately fleeing through a service exit to a quieter part of the club. There she runs into a man (Paul Brannigan) who puts the moves on her. Naturally, we soon see him in the same dark room and disrobing, while she does as well. Again, he is fully nude before she is and soon is wading into the black liquid and vanishing.

"It is said that his last words were, 'Worth it..' "
This time. we see where the men go. Under the surface of the room, they float, weightless. He can see her walking above him at a great distance--and then he sees the naked body of the Czech floating nearby. The Czech's skin seems abnormal, and as the man from the club reaches out and touches the Czech's hand, the skin seems to ripple. The man pulls back in fright, and the Czech lets out a silent scream--and his body implodes, leaving nothing but his skin floating like a plastic bag in the ocean.

We see what appears to be a sluice of red, shredded meat flowing into darkness, and glowing red lasers. Presumably the human meat is being transported elsewhere.

Next we learn that traffic in Glasgow is so bad that motorists can buy roses from men walking around the street to give to other motorists. The florist didn't bother to de-thorn the roses, apparently, and left his blood on the one Star-Girl was given. She then hears a radio report about the drowned couple and their son, a weather bulletin, and then watches random women walk about. Which kind of begs the question of why she's only picking up men--surely a woman who looks like Johansson could easily seduce a few female victims, as well.

Not that I'm complaining about a horror film preying on naked men for a change, of course.

She does eventually lead another man into the dark room, of course, though this appears to be in a different location than before--a house instead of an apartment. We don't see his demise, though, for we then cut to her apparently meeting with the motorcyclist in another dark room and having a silent conversation communicated only through intense stares.

She wanders the streets and ends up tripping and falling. She just wanders away from the concerned bystanders, while the film loses its focus again and starts filming people on the street. Presumably the close-up on an eye is meant to tell us that Star-Girl is watching all this. Admittedly, the attempt to layer all the footage on top itself until her face forms out of the images is a nice touch, but...does it really add anything? It's rather like the screaming televisions in Godzilla vs. Hedorah and nobody heaps praise on that film's artistic touches.

Driving around, a bunch of hoodlums tries to attack Star-Girl in her van. She watches them with disinterest and finally just drives off. She then spies a man with his face covered by a hood (Adam Pearson), and offers him a lift to the supermarket. He seems quite shy and hides his face at first--then pulls back the hood to reveal his face is deformed. (The actor has neurofibromatosis in real life, that's not make-up) Tellingly, Star-Girl does not react to his face in any way, though she does ask him if he's ever had a girlfriend--he has not--and comments on his beautiful hands.

She puts the moves on him hard, though he initially responds by saying he just wants to go to the supermarket. He seems definitely uncomfortable, but he soon softens as she rubs his hands on her face and neck. Before you know it, the deformed man is in a dark room and they're both getting all kinds of naked.

"I, what you've done with the place? Very...Spartan."
A curious thing happens, though. First, Star-Girl appears momentarily like a moving figure carved of obsidian, before we see her leading the naked man to his doom. Second, she seems conflicted after he disappears into the liquid. Perhaps some part of him calls to the dark creature we now have seen is hidden inside of her. We see her staring at her human face in a mirror for several minutes...

...and then she's walking out of the house, with the naked deformed man beside her. She gets in the van and flees, and the poor man is forced to walk naked towards the nearest town. Unfortunately, her change of heart was rather pointless because when he finally finds his way though the garden of a small house, the motorcyclist is there to intercept him and roughly shoves him into the trunk of a car he just broke into. An old woman watches all this happen but does nothing.

Star-Girl, meanwhile, has apparently decide to quit the business and headed for the mountains. She stops briefly to wander in the eerily thick fog on the mountain road that turns everything into pure white. Meanwhile, the motorcyclist stares at himself in the same mirror from earlier--which doesn't bode well for the deformed man, whom we can assume is busy turning into an empty skin suit.

Star-Girl soon finds herself in a nice diner with a great view and orders a very delicious-looking slice of chocolate cake. Eating it does not go well for her, though--she chokes and spits out the one bite she takes. She then wanders around the town she's found herself in, and runs into another man (Michael Moreland) who is waiting for a bus. She rides the bus, ignoring the driver fussing at her for not having a jacket on. The man from the bus stop asks if she's okay, but she doesn't respond to him either--until he asks if she needs help. Apparently she does.

The man takes her shopping for essential supplies in the next town and then takes her to his flat. (Most of which we see in nearly real time of course) The two watch some English comedy over dinner, which she is entranced by, like a cat encountering something she has no idea what to make of. She waits in the bedroom that night, like an uncertain animal as the man brings her tea and sets up a portable heater for her before he goes to sleep elsewhere.

One of the best moments in the film then happens as Star-Girl stands naked before the triple mirror and examines her body. It's not that Johansson is naked--though that's certainly nice--but her acting here is truly great. You really believe that this is an alien examining her new body, trying to make sense of it, trying to see what others see in it. She flexes her toes, stands on one foot, and stretches in various ways. And even though the camera moves all over her naked body, it never feels like it's leering.

Meanwhile, the motorcyclist meets up with some compatriots elsewhere and they all speed off, presumably in search of Star-Girl. The next day, she and the new man in her life go for a walk in the woods. He carries her over puddle and they go to check out one of those random castles you find in Scotland. Apparently Star-Girl is scared of heights, so the visit to the castle is rather brief. That night, Star-Girl and her benefactor attempt to make love. However, once the actual sex begins she suddenly disengages from him, shining a lamp on her groin as if something has torn. That rather kills the mood.

The next day, Star-Girl goes walking in the countryside and woods by herself. Unfortunately, she catches the eye of a logger (Dave Acton). He seems okay at first, just making small talk about how slippery the woods are. However, when she goes to take a nap in a little cottage left as a shelter for hikers, she is rudely awakened by the logger roughly groping her thigh. She shoves him off and flees into the woods. She finds his logging truck, but can't get it started and soon he finds her. She flees into the woods again, but soon he catches her and attempts to rape her...

...only to stop when he tears her skin in the process of removing her clothes, revealing the black, marble-like skin beneath. He stares in stunned incomprehension and then runs away. Star-Girl wanders a few feet, then falls to her knees and peels the false skin away to reveal her true form--a smooth, hairless humanoid with black skin and eyes. She stares at her human face in her hands as it blinks at her, as if it is confused all on its own.

"Lately I just feel feel so beside myself..."
And then the logger returns, having apparently not just buggered the hell off after all. He promptly douses her with petrol and sets her on fire before running away again. The flaming Star-Girl runs out into a snowy clearing before falling to the ground as the flames consume her. On a snowy hillside, the motorcyclist seems to watch the smoke rise, indifferent. The End.

There's a saying among critics, and I've certainly used it--even as amateur as I might be--which is that a movie "rewards patience." This is code for, "It's very slow-moving and often boring, but if you give it time you'll see that it's actullay really good." Under The Skin is definitely the kind of movie that could be referred to this way, except it forgets to actually reward your patience.

Oh, there are definitely things to enjoy about it. As I said, Johansson is marvelous in the role of the alien seductress and the scenes in the dark room are beautiful and horrifying. There is some gorgeous cinematography on display and, while I find the alien design rather uninspired, it is rendered very well,

However, there's a whole lot of dead weight surrounding those bits that actually do work.

Quick, what do Under The Skin and Psycho Shark have in common? That sounds like a trick question, since we all know Psycho Shark has no greater ambition than giving boners to teenagers who can't access porn, while Under The Skin has copious full-out nudity that never feels like simple titillation. Yet, they're both dull, drawn-out exercises in padding that finally get going far too late and then abruptly end.

The difference is that Psycho Shark is a product of incompetence. Under The Skin is rambling by design.

No doubt the director thought he was making some grand comment on humanity, but he was really just...filming people. Like Psycho Shark, albeit a lot more successfully, he occasionally breaks up the monotony with hints of something far greater. In this case, the nature of Star-Girl's mission to lure men to their doom. Except nothing comes of it, because that would require answers and all this movie wants to give are questions. That's all well and good, but at some point if all you have are questions you're expecting the audience to fill in your story for you, which after a certain point begins to feel like you've failed in your job as entertainment.

It's rather like going to a concert and the singer spending the entirety of several songs with the microphone pointed at the audience who came to see them perform so that the audience can sing the songs for them. Sure, it's fun to sing along when you know the words, but at a certain point you could have just stayed home and sang along to the CD.

Then there's the problem that it begins to feel like there isn't a story at all, just a loosely connected series of images like a more sexual Koyaanisqatsi. The closest thing the film manages to get to a plot is Star-Girl seemingly deciding she wants to try and be human, and just as that plot truly gets going she is killed by a heroic would-be rapist.

Yes, I know there are plenty of folks who interpret that as a statement about how trapped Star-Girl was by her sexuality that it ultimately destroyed her, or something along those lines. I don't think the film means us to actually view the logger as a hero by any means, but it's hard to shake the feeling that his assault on her is a form of comeuppance.

In the end, I'm of two minds on this film. On the one hand, I want to like it for Johansson's wonderful performance and for taking a concept that Jess Franco could have made as a sleazy Eurosmut feature in the 1970s (in fact, swap out the alien for a revenge-driven widow and he did sort of tackle the concept already) and treating it like it's high-concept. On the other, I just don't like it much at all. It's everything I hate about art films in general and it's also just plain full of things that are rightly considered failings in films that don't get to claim themselves as high art.

At least the Jess Franco would have a gloriously inappropriate soundtrack. This film's soundtrack is just kind of repetitive, when it's present at all.

In the end, despite the near-universal praise for this film, I have to strongly disagree. It shows promise at multiple points but just never realizes it. If you must see it, it is worth it for Johnasson but that's pretty much it,

Though all this Franco talk means I'm picturing a movie with Lina Romay in the Johansson role and am suddenly in need of a time machine...

Today's review is brought to you by the letter U! Click the banner above to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes did for their U flicks.


  1. Strongly agree with your review! Somewhat oddly, given the full nudity on display, the movie is a tease--hinting at meaning but never delivering. Waste of time.

  2. I read Dr. Freex take on this film yesterday, and I'll admit that I was toying with the idea of re-examining my stance on this film... which is almost exactly the same as yours. Johansson does a great job (and brave-- the lighting was not flattering at all in most of the naked segments), but there's nothing there BUT her pulling gamely on her oar. Another film to contrast with this one is "Mr. Turner", which is also essentially plotless and devoted more to amazing images than story-telling... but you don't get angry at it for being thus.