Can a movie be neither good nor bad? Also, can a movie be one of the most exciting experiences you have in a movie theater all year, but ultimately underwhelming at the same time? Such are the questions that Under the Skin, the latest movie by director Jonathan Glazer, inspired in me after I saw it four days ago. Glazer came into the scene with the pretty terrific one-two punch of Sexy Beast (2001) and Birth (2004). He’s come back with his first movie in almost ten years, and lucky for him, the film has been almost unanimously praised.
The basic plot of the movie is the following: an alien comes to earth, takes the form of Scarlett Johansson, gets on a van, and starts driving around Scotland looking for men to “feed” herself. Or maybe she is feeding her race taking their vitality, or something amongst those lines. That part of the isn’t all that clear, but then again, Under the Skin is one of those movies that don’t require you understanding all of the plot for you to enjoy it. As a matter of fact, all the things I loved about the film have little (if not nothing) to do with the plot. At its best, Under the Skin couldn’t be described as anything but an experience.
The movie begins with a sequence that is undoubtedly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that will certainly make little sense when you encounter it for the first time. It consists of basically a series of evocative images and a loud, unsettling score. There is virtually no plot to think about here, but it’s also impossible to not surrender to the movie’s power, and just sit there, almost hypnotized at the intensity of Glazer’s filmmaking. After that opening sequence, all the best moments in the film consist of similar experiences. Of sound (be it the grandiose score by Mica Levi, or the sound of crashing waves) working together with disturbing images to put the audience in a certain state of mind, were nothing is quite as it should be, everything is slightly off, and you just can’t relax.
That may not be what you look for when you go out to the movies, but if the idea of watching crazy stuff go on on a giant screen sounds at all appealing to you, then I think you’ll have a good time at Under the Skin. And if you feel like watching the movie, then you should do so as fast as you can, or whenever it gets to a theater near you city, because if there ever was a movie that had to be seen on the big screen, this is it. People tend to say that kind of thing about big summer blockbuster full of visual effects, but I never understood that. They all look the same. If you want to have a unique experience, then this is the movie for you. The visuals (by cinematographer Daniel Landin) are all pretty outstanding, especially in the first three quarters of the movie. Sometime towards the end, the camera adopts a weird color filter that doesn’t seem to add much to the film, but that reveals itself as an awesome decision with the last, wonderful, images of the movie.
All of that is more than enough to recommend Under the Skin, but it always gets a little tricky when I’m dealing with a movie that has been as highly praised as this one. I start looking for excellence in all fronts, searching for the justification for this being called the best movie of the year. And the truth is that in the realm of story, Under the Skin disappoints. That’s not to say that the story is bad (which it isn’t), or that a movie needs to have an outstanding story to be great (which is simply not true), but the problem with Under the Skin, is that its plot ends up being a little too literal. Before I went in, I asked myself what places a movie about an alien dressed up as a woman would go to, and the movie went exactly there. As an experience, Under the Skin is priceless, but as a movie to think and talk about after the fact, I don’t know if it offers as much as I would like it to.
Grade: Probably 9 out of 10?