Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Under the Skin (2014)



Who's In It: Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers, The Prestige)

What It's About: An alien disguises itself as a woman in order to travel Scotland and lure men to their dooms. Until...

How It Is: Not as much a horror film as the premise suggests, but that's okay. I may stretch the definition of the genre this month. Johansson plays a murderous alien, but the film isn't about exploring the horror of that from her victims' point of view. It's interested in her story and that's cool, even though I wasn't as wrapped up in it as I wanted to be.

Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) believes that if a shot is worth taking, it's worth spending at least thirty seconds looking at. And sometimes that's true. Under the Skin is largely a gorgeous film and makes great use of its Scot landscapes and cities. But the languid editing reaaaally makes the movie drag. To its credit, my mind never wandered away from the movie and some of my time was well spent pondering Johansson's character and her motivations. But some of my time was also spent waiting impatiently for the next shot. That means that I was always interested in what was coming next, so the film is riveting in that way, but it can also be frustrating.

Something Glazer did that was cool though was shoot some of the film Borat-style with hidden cameras recording Johansson as she seduces and has conversations with non-actors who don't know they're being filmed. I knew that going in, but I didn't know how much was shot that way or which scenes. That meant that for a while every shot had the illusion of authenticity, so that when some really horrible things started to happen they were that much more impactful as I tried to figure out what was staged and what was just Glazer letting the camera record life. As the film went on though, I got better at figuring out what was what and that impact wasn't as powerful.

I don't want to reveal too much about the development of Johansson's character, but she does have an arc and it's at least an interesting one, if not especially powerful for me. She's a blank slate, a cipher that you can either read a lot into or not much at all. Britt Hayes wrote an awesome piece for Screen Crush that's an example of the depth to be mined from what's going on with Johansson's character. I watched it from a different perspective and didn't get as much out of it. It's a good film and possibly a great one, but where it falls on that scale depends on how much you're willing to give back to it. Maybe I was just feeling lazy, but while I was intellectually curious about how the alien was changing and behaving, I was never emotionally invested in it.

Rating: Two out of five man-eating extraterrestrials.

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