Review: Under the Skin

Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson, got glowing reviews by /r/movies most of the times I saw it come up, and even by reviewers I generally trust, like YMS. I was pretty excited to go into it knowing as little as possible, as is my preferred custom. That means accepting  getting burned once in awhile, and unfortunately, this was one of those times. Under the Skin turned out to be one of the most boring and pointless movies I’ve ever seen.

Spoiler Free:

The main problem with Under the Skin is that it has no plot. By which I mean, the protagonist’s goal is completely opaque, there is no conflict or opposition to her actions, there is no antagonist, and there are no answers to any of the dozens of questions the viewer will be left with.

There is something that can loosely be described as a story, in that a series of events occur in chronological order, but it’s a series of events which, stripped of their weirdness, are about as engaging as watching someone go to the store to buy paint with which to paint their wall and watch it dry. That isn’t an exaggeration, by the way: some of the scenes in the movie are literally just the woman (none of the characters have names) doing completely mundane things, in excruciatingly slow detail, or staring contemplatively at scenery.

I’m not someone that can only be entertained by explosions and gunshots, fun as those can be. I often enjoy “thinking” stories, films or novels about themes rather than spectacle and dialogue rather than action. The problem is this movie has neither. The characters don’t even approach one dimensional, and the acting isn’t just non-memorable, but outright nonexistent at times. Staring blankly out a window, or asking people on the street for directions, is not acting by any definition I find useful.

The movie is often billed as a horror film, but that’s laughable. I love both cerebral horror and a good monster film when done well, but this couldn’t manage the appeal of either. Any sense of fear or dread was quickly drowned out by the mundanity of the majority of the film, and eventually the utter lack of any sensible plot or context for what was happening on screen. If it were a 30 minute art piece, it would be far more effective and engaging than the 108 minutes of suspenseless non-acting that I had to endure just so it could be billed as a “feature film.”

I’ve seen and heard people praise the movie on its directing or “vision,” but any comparisons to directors like Stanley Kubrik (which come up often) are, frankly, insulting. It clearly tries to mimic him in places, like the opening of the movie, but while its score is good and the imagery of certain scenes are memorable, a cinematic masterpiece this is not.

If I had to give it a rating, it just barely makes a 1/10 instead of a 0. 2/10 if I’m feeling generous, which, so close to the viewing, I’m not.

Spoileriffic:

Ok, so this movie is about an alien (supposedly, it’s not explained) who wears an attractive human skin to pick up men and take them back to a special house where she can trap them in some kind of water containment thing so they will eventually get their insides sucked out by… something.

Where she comes from, why she’s doing it, never get answered. That’s fine. There is occasionally a guy on a motorcycle who goes around cleaning up any evidence left behind by disappeared guys, or witnesses. Presumably he’s also an alien, but that’s also never explained. Also fine. There’s hints that there are more than just one of each of them, but no elaboration whatsoever on that point. Well and good.

The first 40 minutes of the film are just her going around the city, talking to guys, and leading 2 or 3 of them back to the house to watch them get naked and walk into a black pool of water, seemingly unaware that they’re even doing it. At no point is there any chance to get to know or empathize with any of them. At no point do they seem aware of the danger they’re in. It’s just exactly what it sounds like: ScarJo drives around, chats up dudes, and eventually finds an unattached one to drive back to her place. At one point she goes shopping, which we watch. At another point she listens to the radio, which briefly comments on something related to a disappearance she was involved in. Again, which we watch.

I want you to imagine all these things I’m describing, then add about 10 minutes of lingering camera shots on people milling around in the city, or the landscape, or ScarJo’s face, or whatever for each of them, because that’s, again, basically all that happens for roughly 40 minutes. One of the guys she encounters almost drowns trying to save someone at the beach, and she knocks him on the head with a rock and drags him away. This is the closest thing to unusual human interactions that we get for the first 40 minutes.

As someone expecting a story, you might think that at some point there will be dialogue between her and the motorcycle guy that gives you a better understanding of these strange beings and what they want, or how they feel about… anything. You’d be wrong. You might expect the police to eventually take notice, some kind of effort by others to find out who she is and what she’s doing. Nothing of the sort occurs.

Instead, after being treated to one of the few visually memorable scenes in the movie, where one of the trapped men watches another of the previously trapped men get his insides sucked out (by nothing visible, they’re just hanging in suspended liquid) and reduced to a floating skin-suit, finally something different happens. She picks up a guy with a very blatant physical deformity of the face: think Elephant Man. She has more interaction with him than any previous marks, but that just means that the movie spends an extra two minutes on her convincing him to go with her before she succeeds.

It seems she has a change of heart though, because after leading him into the black room as normal, we then see her stare at herself in the mirror and let the man go. As for why, that’s never explained, because the creators of the film had delusions of artistic grandeur, I guess.

So she lets him run home naked (it’s mentioned that it was a 30 minute drive to get there, but apparently he ran all the way home naked in an eyeblink) and drives off somewhere. The motorcycle guy gets to his house just as he arrives and kills him and stuffs him in a trunk, just to make sure nothing interesting happens in the movie. An old lady watches it happen, and the motorcycle guy seems to notice her noticing it, but that never gets revisited either, because again, that would lead the movie into having a plot.

ScarJo appears to have developed a conscience, because instead of picking up more men, she just… wanders around. A lot. First she drives aimlessly, then she walks aimlessly, then she takes the bus aimlessly. Seriously, this goes on for like 10 minutes. Oh she also falls down once while walking on the sidewalk. Some people help her up. She keeps walking.

It’s all extremely tedious, but finally she meets a man who asks her if she’s okay and needs help. He takes her to his place, makes her some food, takes her sightseeing, and eventually they have sex.

(By the way, this whole time, we’re treated to quick scenes of the motorcycle guys looking for her. Spoiler alert: they never find her. I managed to be amused by these scenes after imagining that each time they were shown, the motorcycle guys were in some other country, just becoming more and more frustrated by their utter inability to find someone by simply… you know… driving around randomly and eyeballing the scenery)

Except they don’t actually have sex, because apparently she doesn’t have a fully working anatomy, which seems as much a surprise to her as him. This is seriously the only moment in the entire movie where ScarJo does anything remotely resembling acting, rather than just looking vaguely sad, blankly emotionless, or putting on a polite smile while picking up men.

And yet again, instead of something interesting happening, like him exclaiming “WTF?” and the two getting into a conversation about what she is and so on, she just runs away into the woods, wanders around for another goddamn 10 minutes, and gets assaulted by some rapist woodsman. He pulls some of her “skin” off, then runs away in fright. She takes off the rest of her skin, including her face, and you see the alien beneath: basically a humanoid with chrome-black skin and no distinct features. The woodsman comes back with a can of gasoline. He pours some on her, then lights her on fire. She runs a bit, falls over, and burns up. The camera pans up to the sky as the smoke goes up, and the movie ends.

If that sounds remotely interesting or entertaining to you, I would like to do my best to assure you, again, that it’s not. I know it sounds like it might be unique or interesting, but again, each of those scenes I just mentioned? Imagine 10 minutes of ScarJo looking at herself in the mirror, or staring at a piece of cake, or walking down the street, or going grocery shopping, or walking down some castle stairs. In any other movie I would call it mood setting, but in this one the only mood it sets is one of absolute boredom.

If you’re one of those people who watched it and enjoyed it though, kudos. Seriously, I’m happy for you. After the 10 years of development that apparently went into it, it would be an even greater tragedy if no one did.

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