This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I award a lot of films five stars, because my criteria is based on relative perfection attained with respect to what the filmmakers are attempting to convey. In other words, any film has the ability to be awarded five stars; no film is denied the potential solely based on subject matter. But when I look back at my time spent in a darkened theatre I honestly can count the number of transcendent film experiences I’ve had on one hand, maybe two hands if I’m being generous. I’m talking the kind of experiences that consume you, swallow you whole and spit you back out a completely different person, as opposed to someone in a perpetual state of becoming, to which can be credited numerous five star films I’ve seen on home video, blu-ray, my cellphone, what have you, where the demands of life always trump the experience and the pause button is only too readily available. I’m talking about the soul-crushing, identity-redefining experiences that can ONLY happen inside a movie theatre, where the entire world and fuck all in it disappears completely from view, and it’s just me and the inimitable images unfolding on screen, where I’m changing internally about as often as a new frame of film graces the light of the glowing projector somewhere off in the distance, behind and above me. Before Saturday April 19th, 2014, the last time it happened to me was November 13th, 1996, when the raised house lights left me ruined in my seat throughout the credits of Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves.
The privilege and experience of watching Under The Skin is also one of those few transcendent experiences. An argument certainly exists that the film is the greatest motion picture ever made, of that I cannot dispute. But when a film reaches this level of impression, what does objective qualification matter anymore? For sure, Under The Skin is a perfectly made film, no less so than Citizen Kane or Vertigo, for many reasons which I will detail at length below. But it’s so rare, at least in this day and age, in our consumerist culture of “on to the next one,” and the way we are almost forced to easily digest media, for a work of art to even be given the time to effect a human being, let alone for that effect to be so elemental, primal, and transformative, as is the subversive power of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. I implore you, if you haven’t seen this film, stop reading this review right now. You can only experience the majesty of this juggernaut for the first time once, and I don’t want it to be through my humble analysis.
I had a significant heads’ up about Under The Skin prior to its release here in the states on April 4th, and its gradual widening through April 18th when I was able to finally catch it. I took advantage of that time to seek out Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, from which the film is adapted. Putting it mildly, it is vastly different. It is told from the perspective of the main character, a female alien named Isserley from another planet, while she ventures out into the Scotland night, driving up and down the main thoroughfare in search of male hitchhikers to kill so that they can be made into food for the upper class on her home planet. There are spaceships, and extraterrestrial dialogue and descriptions, including the way she dispatches her victims, by a chemical injection that shoots up from the passenger seat of her vehicle. It is completely different than what ends up on director Jonathan Glazer’s screen, save for a single preserved theme, what it means to be human. Faber delves into other things like class warfare, drawing parallels between Isserley’s planet and the great economic divide among the population here on Earth, which Glazer rightfully ignores, focusing instead on the aforementioned theme, upon which there is more than enough to dwell. In that regard, right from the start Under The Skin has the rare distinction of being better than, and in a sense greatly different from, the novel upon which it is based.
The exploration of what it means to be human is certainly something that has been extensively covered on film throughout its history as an art form. To this day it remains a subject mined by Hollywood for dramatic, emotional potential in underlining the more overt themes of its blockbusters, of which there is an infinite amount of material. But no other film prior to Under The Skin has brought me so close to the brink of my own humanity, and forced me to acknowledge the finite time we have on this planet which every single person takes for granted in some way. Watching Jonathan Glazer follow Scarlett Johansson through her gradually escalating curiosity turned into desire to become human is one of the most heart wrenching, devastating portraits I’ve ever seen, rendered all the more powerful by the sublime way that I have absorbed and repurposed that energy into an instrument for my own personal betterment.
Under The Skin opens on a single point of light just off center of the frame, as composer Mica Levi’s ambient droning and ominous, fidgety strings grow increasingly louder and more structured, suggesting we are traveling towards the light. Then suddenly the entire screen is bathed in white, which presents a juxtaposition that is repeated only once, when the alien’s conquests are being transformed and processed, bookends for half the film of creation and destruction, after which Johansson’s character begins to change. After the white light, a series of bizarre, otherworldy shapes appear and begin to travel across the screen and attempt to fit inside each other, resolving onto what is one of the greatest graphic matches of all time, a human eye. Not only does this opening induct the film into a very specific tradition of science-fiction filmmaking, which includes the legends Kubrick and Tarkovsky, but it carves out its own territory right form the start communicating the dichotomies of alien and human, and otherworldly and Earth, the only place a human eye can be found.
From there the film assumes a very linear narrative progression, albeit with hardly any dialogue. We see Johansson remove the clothes of what seems to be her deceased predecessor, as a tear escapes her vacant stare, and then set out into the world on a series of hunts where she picks up different men and takes them back to her place to be appropriated and consumed. All the dialogue in the entire film, save for one specific scene, is incidental, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the recording is muddled, and very difficult to understand Scotsmen with thick accents were cast, as what is exchanged between them and Johansson is irrelevant, in aid of only one thing, fulfillment on both sides, sexual on one and consumption on the other; they might as well be saying “blah, blah, blah” for all the difference it would make. The manner in which they cease to become human is completely bonkers, changed greatly from the novel, I believe, for several reasons. One, because there is no need for the process to be understood, the film is not about the process and framing it in an easily relatable gimmick is too obvious a flaw of a first-time novelist, a pitfall Glazer is above, while the second reason is to further the film’s human theme by showing just how unrecognizable these victims become when it’s all over for them. It is a harrowing, deeply disturbing repetition of events that gradually reveals more and more, while Levi’s haunting string repetition of three ascending notes that alternates in intensity and in time sustained between each note, completely unhinges the viewer, introducing the idea that our pitiful world is simply no match for what she can do, and there is nowhere in this film that is safe.
Some point soon after Johansson begins to identify her similarities with the humans she is killing, in much the same way that identity, and specifically gender identity, is discovered in toddlers when they begin to distinguish an idea of the self, their self, as distinct from their parents et al. There is a scene midway through the film where human interactions are studied, not diegetically from the perspective of Johansson, as we never see her looking, but for the benefit of the audience. This is a purposeful narrative break allowing us to watch people just living their lives, and it filled me with absolute wonder. What joy it is to be human, and indulge in the little innocuous moments of day to day life? How significant are these little moments if you couldn’t even experience a single one? Glazer beautifully conflates the growing longing inside Johansson with our own, hoping that we acknowledge how we take things like this for granted, and begin to question which is more tragic.
The rest of the film follows Johansson as she makes attempts to be human, and discovers she just cannot be. A simple scene of trying a piece of chocolate cake ends in her spitting it back up. An attempt at a sexual encounter ends with her discovering she has no vagina, because for her, and what she is, she has no need of one. And finally a spiritual walk through the forest, and an instinctual flight, a very human response to someone attempting to rape her, the moment when she is as close to being human as she can possibly be, she is murdered, burned alive while she holds her human face in her hands until the fire turns her completely to ash and sends her up into the sky, against the thick, falling snowflakes that are coming down and blanketing the Earth. But it’s also in this bittersweet moment, in death, where she finally becomes human, when the ashes of her body become one with the Earth, just like everyone else. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, under the skin we are all human, except for Johansson, for her death is the only equalizer, and that’s where this film hit me the hardest, where a single shot looking up to the sky captures the falling snow, the mingling of what she once was with what she now is, her ultimate redemption, just like Bess McNeill in Breaking The Waves, and I might as well have been back in that theatre many years ago, watching those bells ring out in heaven.
Something else I see in the film is a great prominence given to the five elements that many cultures believe make up all of creation: earth, water, fire, air and space, or void. Earth is represented by the land itself, and the protracted finale that follows Johansson exploring the wilderness. Water is represented by Johansson’s continuous draw to the craggy Scottish coastline, watching the waves crash down against the rocks. Air is represented in the scene when she gets lost in the fog, traveling through it for a few minutes only to come out on the other side determined to experience life as a human being. Fire is represented in her manner of death. And of course space, or void, is represented throughout the film, in what existed before creation, where her victims go after they are consumed, and where we go when we die, as humans return to the five elements from which they were created, and Johansson gets to be a part of it as well; it is important for her to experience each element.
For being a science-fiction film about an alien, Under The Skin is very much anchored by Earth itself. Which is why comparisons to David Lynch are far too obvious, and easy, and knee-jerk; just because something is weird or strange (synonyms for “different”) it has to be Lynchian. Yes, Glazer’s gorgeous dissolve of Johansson lying in the fetal position over the wind blowing through the pine trees did make me think of Twin Peaks, but only in how different the two are, Lynch exploring the supernatural, or otherworldly forces at work around us, while Glazer is forever trying to ground us in the familiar, to make us look at things we see every single day, the way they truly are; he doesn’t want us to see the evil in existence, he wants us to see the good, and in Johansson’s death attempt to redeem us all. Where have I heard that before?
You might say I had a religious, or spiritual experience with this film. If it’s not at all obvious, I love this film dearly. It may sound cliche but I’m ashamed at the things I take for granted. I want to say that I’ll never eat another piece of chocolate cake the same way again, or that I’ll never walk through a forest without appreciation, or that I will never let existence become complacent and status quo, or just a cog in the great machine. But already, as the days and hours and minutes grow between myself and this wonderful piece of cinema I can feel the conformities and duties of life creeping back in. I had two other films I was going to watch that same day and just couldn’t. Fuck them. But I know it won’t last. Under The Skin will be assimilated into my own personal water cooler, and one day sit unassuming on my blu-ray shelf between Tree Of Life and Watchmen. I tried to make the experience more special. Since it just happened to be Record Store Day I left the theatre and went straight to my vinyl connection in town and picked up Mica Levi’s soundtrack. I’ve already listened to it about six times. It’s one of my five favorite scores ever. It’s my new writing partner. I don’t expect to see a better film the rest of the year, and I guess I can’t expect to see something better in the theatre for another eighteen. It gets me to thinking. Maybe I’ve taken this whole notion of being an observer as far as it can go.
Maybe it’s time I start focusing on being a creator.
The Verdict: Rave