Under the Skin

A beautiful young woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Scotland in a panel van, talking to random young men on the street.  Her questions start with asking for directions then switch to more personal questions.  She is looking for men who are unattached, living alone and, should they disappear, won’t be missed.  Those who meet those criteria are picked up.  The men believe they are being invited to have sex with this woman.  They are actually being led to their deaths by an alien pretending to be human.  The men are immersed in a black fluid where their bodies are broken down into a liquid, their skins floating in the fluid like a deflated balloon.  If there are any loose ends left by the men, a man riding a racing motorcycle takes care of them.  While cruising one night, the woman meets a young man with neurofibromatosis that causes tumorous growths on the bone that disfigures his face.  The woman treats him just like the others but when she sees herself in a mirror, she allows the man to go free.  Now she becomes a target for the motorcycle riding men who are also aliens.  She’s beginning to discover feelings and empathy but emotions could get her killed.
“Under the Skin” is based on a book of the same name.  I haven’t read the book but a synopsis on Wikipedia describes a story far different than what is in this film.  I enjoyed the book synopsis far more than the movie.
“Under the Skin” is a confounding film that never feels like it actually starts.  It stagnates at the edge of beginning but doesn’t take a step over the line.  Instead, it takes a collection of images that frequently don’t make any sense and aren’t connected and tries to make a movie out of it.  It doesn’t work.  While the film has some interesting scenes they are far too infrequent and separated by long sections showing Johansson driving around in the van from various angles and occasionally stopping to chat up a pedestrian.  Johansson’s character is only able to mimic pleasant human interactions and doesn’t understand much of daily life.  She is frequently confused and stares for long stretches at whatever the source of her confusion is.  She trips on the sidewalk and falls on her face.  She is assisted to her feet by passersby at whom she only stares and doesn’t thank before walking away.  She tries to eat human food but immediately spits it out but not before staring at it for several seconds.  It’s a performance that is probably far better than I can give it credit since it is so flat and almost infantile in its apparent lack of understanding.  
Sometimes when I’m watching a film, I try to predict what actions will occur next.  In most films, the story structure is pretty standard and guessing the order of events is fairly easy.  “Under the Skin” is the rare film that I was never able to guess what would happen next.  The reason:  Nothing much ever happens.  This is one of the few films that would actually benefit being a little predictable.  Instead, when we expect a car crash, a fist fight and the discovery of one character by another, we get nothing but more staring or driving.
The opening images of the film are a pretty good example of what the rest of the movie is like.  After some white graphics on a flat black background, the screen goes pitch black of a very long time with no sound.  For a moment, I thought there was something wrong in the projection booth.  Then a pinpoint of light appeared in the center of the screen.  It seemed to grow larger as a sound is introduced that builds in volume.  I wondered what the light was and still wonder as I write this.  The light appears to be a reflection off a black, shiny surface.  Then that object appears to intersect a round white object as the sound continues to build to a nearly intolerable level when an extreme close-up of the iris and pupil of an eye fills the screen.  This first section is somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s acid-trip like scene near the end of “2001:  A Space Odyssey.”  The random images that end suddenly in something familiar brought his film to a conclusion.  Sadly, “Under the Skin” puts it at the beginning and it’s only downhill from there.
“Under the Skin” is rated R for some violence, graphic nudity, sexual content and language.  We see Johansson strike a man in the head with a rock.  There is a married couple that is struggling to rescue their dog in rough surf and it is assumed they die, leaving their very small child alone and crying on the rocky beach.  We see a person burned alive.  There is an attempted rape.  A man is shown being thrown naked into the trunk of a car.  There’s also a brief group attack of the van Johansson drives.  There is a great deal of nudity in the film of both sexes.  Johansson is seen nude a couple of times and there are at least two occasions of full frontal male nudity with one of those times showing the man erect.  There is one brief sex scene that isn’t the least bit sexy.  Foul language is very rare and mild.
“Under the Skin” has been well reviewed by the major (or as I call them “real”) critics.  Words like “brilliant,” “stunning” and “intoxicating” have been used by those who really love the film.  I guess I’m not smart enough to see all those good things as I found the film boring and frustrating in its lack of energy.  I am certainly unqualified compared to those who review movies for major publications and websites, but then I only use one criterion for judging a film:  Is it entertaining.  To me, “Under the Skin” is not.  It luxuriates in atmosphere and uses a cacophonous soundtrack to suggest something about life and how we live it, but that is just a guess.  I wanted to like the film but it never gave me anything I could latch on to and or a way into the mind of the character.  This movie must be art since I don’t get it.
“Under the Skin” gets one guitar.
The 900-pound gorilla in the room this week is a web slinger with some angry enemies and that has scared off any major studio competition.  Therefore, I’ll add a few art films into the movie poll on which for you to vote.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2—Spiderman comes to realize that all of his enemies have one thing in common: OsCorp.
Dom Hemingway—After serving 12 years in prison, a safecracker seeks payback and a chance at reconciliation.
The Railway Man—Former POW Eric Lomax and his new wife go in search of the Japanese interpreter who tortured him.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres or On Demand.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
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