Posted April 20, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Science Fiction

Under the Skin: Eerie, Simple, Wordless

Under the Skin is an extremely simple (almost laughably simple), nearly wordless film about a sexy alien roaming around Scotland in a mini-van, seducing and then killing men. It is from English writer/director Jonathan Glazer, whose previous films were Sexy Beast (2001) and Birth (2004).

The first half-hour is good, eerily setting up its premise and its major character, played by Scarlett Johansson. The character resembles a Black Widow spider. (The female of the Black Widow species, incidentally, really does kill the male after copulation, in a practice often referred to in scientific literature as “sexual cannibalism.”)

But after the effective set-up, the film has nowhere to go. There are 30 good minutes followed by 80 minutes of repetition and filler. Under the Skin is a short that was stretched to feature length.

This is happening more and more today; there’s something very 21st-century about it. Filmmakers are finding it harder than ever to dream up complete stories. They can only write the first act. Someone please create a course called ‘How to Write a Second Act’ and make it mandatory in every film school worldwide!

In the 20th century, screenwriters read novels to learn about story creation. Nowadays, screenwriters appear not to read. They model their films on video games, music videos, and YouTube clips. It’s all about the visual image. Feast for the eye, famine for the mind — stories that take 15 minutes to tell. Have you noticed how many films today have almost no words? And these films are especially popular with young people. Remember last year’s Gravity?

I’ve even heard young men today say that they prefer movies “without much talking” (their phrase). And it’s not just the very young. A thirtysomething man who I’m pretty sure has a college education recently told me that he was happy that a certain new film “didn’t have much dialect.” He meant dialogue.

To be fair, Under the Skin does have a story with a second act, but Act 2 is very thin and cliché. At the film’s halfway point, the alien undergoes a transformation when she empathizes with one of her prey. Interestingly, it’s a young man with the ‘Elephant Man’ disease, his face looking like it’s melting.

This somber young man lives a solitary existence because of his condition, speaking really to no one. He is shunned by his community. This triggers something in the alien. Whereas she used to look around Earth with a predator’s eye, she now looks around in something like wonder. She grows fond of Earth.

The problem is that the film does nothing with this. It just leads to more roaming and more wordless puzzlement on Johansson’s face. How long can one watch Scarlett Johansson walk around looking bewildered? After 90 minutes of this, I wanted to kill myself — and the film still had 20 minutes to go!

There’s a vicious act of violence in the last 5 minutes that comes from out of nowhere, and the film suddenly ends. This is also becoming very common today. When the screenwriter doesn’t know how to end the story, he just throws in some explosive violence. An artificial ending to bring a hollow Act 2 to a close. This also happened in last year’s terrible The Canyons (from screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis) — memorable for its awfulness.

There is something moderately interesting about this violence, as it represents a turning of the tables. Earlier she had been the predator and the male was the prey; now it’s the reverse. But this is not explored. It’s so sketchy.

I get the feeling that Jonathan Glazer does have something to say as an artist. He’s just not good at exploring his ideas in a sustained way. He’s all about fragments. Under the Skin is only his third feature-length film. I have not seen Sexy Beast, but I did see Birth. It starred Nicole Kidman as a widow whose life is turned upside down when a 12-year-old boy claims to be her dead husband.

This is a great and quite bizarre premise. But like Under the Skin, Birth had a great set-up and no follow-through. The woman goes into a tailspin of shock when the boy delivers his jaw-dropping revelation. Then she starts to wonder if it might be true. But that’s as far as it goes. Glazer started a great story and couldn’t finish it.

It’s a decade later, and he is back with pretty much the same thing. Not only is he not developing better stories, he’s probably not even being encouraged to do so. We’ve moved into an age where this kind of one-act filmmaking is favored. I think young people today want films that are high-concept, with little to no story development.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Under the Skin becomes quite popular with younger members of the art-house audience — because it’s got such a cool look and a sexy starlet. Scarlett Johansson as a Black Widow spider: cool!

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.