Under the Skin review: even Scarlett Johansson can’t save it

Under the Skin is the year’s most divisive film

Some creative imagery and a haunting performance Scarlett Johansson aren’t enough to save “Under the Skin” from being the oddest and most frustrating film I’ve seen all year.

There’s no middle ground with Director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer’s third feature film that explores sci-fi and sexual themes. You’re either going to absolutely adore it finding it a dazzling, unique experience packed full of allegories with an up to your interpretation of the human condition or hate it for going nowhere and feeling far longer than its 108 minute length.

Under the Skin movie - victim in the pool

And that’s part of the fun with movies, especially ones that aren’t as straight-forward good guy vs. bad guy or brainless blockbuster as our typical stream of summer flicks. Asking the audience to think about what they’re seeing on screen isn’t an issue, but Glazer wants them to do all the work and make something out of a lot of nothing.

Johansson (Lucy) plays a mysterious woman who seduces lonely men on Scottish streets and lures them into her van for a one-night stand. Glazer is fascinated with the human body so there’s numerous scenes of full frontal nudity presented so sterile that it’s devoid of sex appeal. It takes a special movie to make a naked Scarlett Johansson scene dull.

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The film has little else to say besides Johansson’s unnamed lead’s repetitious quest. Is there a certain type of man she prefers? Why Scotland? What is her purpose? What is the film’s purpose? Don’t expect answers to any of these questions.

Under the Skin movie - Scarlett Johansson pulling diver

There are a number of long dramatic pauses between conversations — the film takes 13 minutes for the first bit of spoken dialogue — and for the more restless viewers, the film’s constant start and stop to go nowhere will quickly become annoying.

The film is loosely based on Michel Faber’s 2000 critically acclaimed novel, which is a bit more straightforward with its themes of humanity and how we view food and sexuality.

Technically, the film is a stunner. Glazer shifts between expansive locations that take advantage of the Scottish hills and landscape while other scenes are minimalist with just the actors and their clothes visible against stark white or black backdrops. There’s some fascinating visual concepts Glazer explores, but he doesn’t offer enough payoff to reward your investment.

Under the Skin movie - orange screen

The score by Mica Levi is appropriately eerie and unnerving. It compliments the film’s bizarre happenings perfectly. Johansson tackles perhaps her most demanding role and does all that’s required of her and more, but there’s only so much she can do with such scant material.

I’d only recommend this for audience members that really want a mental challenge from their movies or those that don’t need much dialogue and are content deciphering the deeper meaning of their films.

Under the Skin movie - Scarlett Johansson in the dark room

If that’s not you, Under the Skin should be filed under your never watch category. For me, I’m definitely in the latter with 2014’s most divisive film.

Rating: 1 out of 10

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  • Barry Murray

    I’m surprised you never got much from the movie!
    I reckon it’s one of my faves of the year. Finally a movie that doesn’t spoon feed answers in small chunks to the audience.
    I watched it back to back with Lucy(Which i also loved, once again, at odds with your opinion), but i have watched this twice since. I was in awe of a film maker that was bold enough not to explain every little thing.
    But the world would be a boring place if we all loved the same things. I’d rank this movie far higher than that hogwash Guardians of the galaxy, lol, and most people i talk to loved that one.
    I personally reckon the reason for scotland was that Scarlett’s character(And likely thousands more, all over the world), are in out of the way places, only taking people who won’t be missed. In a larger country, that might be noticed. It’s just a guess though, as no explanation was given.

  • 🙂
    I remembered you asking if I’d gotten around to seeing this one yet and wanted to post the review before responding so as not to spoil it.

    Like your theory on Scotland! That makes a lot of sense.

    But I so appreciate we can disagree on movies like rationale folks! Almost as much fun as when we agree on things!

  • Barry Murray

    Yeah. It’s just one of those divisive “love it or hate it” movies.
    I have to say that it never really had a typical structure. I liked that. It feels like most movies are made for the lowest common denominator for absolute idiots that need every detail nailed down.
    I fully appreciate that studios need a return on their investment and as such, they do need to make product that will sell.
    But I also like when someone takes a chance to make a movie which doesn’t neatly tie up all the loose ends.

  • That was definitely this movie, but I get why some people would like it. Just wasn’t for me.

    I thought this made a profit though as it didn’t have a lot of big budget expenses. It certainly took a chance!

  • Barry Murray

    What i like is to be cast into the story “without” an explanation, to use my own deductive skills if needed. Star Wars did a lot of that, with only a little exposition when needed.
    Imagine a movie that is a day in “your” life. When some guy you have known for years enters the scene, you aren’t going to say: “Hey, tony! My best bud! We have been friends ever since that day in high school when you and i stood together against bullies, and our friendship was sealed that day.” And Tony says: “Yeah, Jeff. I need to talk to you. Remember my ex-girlfriend Tanya that i dated for four years and then she disappeared, only to be wanted for the murder of four cops when a Jewellery heist went wrong? She’s back in town.”
    Rather, your doorbell goes, your friend walks in, you say: “Sup?” and he says: “Fancy getting a beer? Tanya’s back in town…”
    An astute audience sees the a close friendship, sees you are tight and that there’s something going down. More info might follow in due course, but the audeince are ready for it.
    I liked that about Under The Skin. We hardly hear her speak. We never see any explanation other than we are shown visually. Although we see a conclusion in her own story, we can’t know how many more of “them” there are here. Nothing is truly resolved, although we have to understand that due to her having the bike riding “minder”(And the fact there were several of them), tells us of a larger presence of “them”, and that their charges often go off mission. His close observation hints at a past of previous operatives who started to lose focus, so he(And the other racers) are there to keep her on track.
    It’s a complicated storyline hinting at deeper level of story that we as viewers are not privvy to, but can imagine.
    The beauty in my mind is that your imaginings of what is going on could be totally different from mine.
    In a nutshell we have aliens on earth shepherding off single human males to harvest them for god knows what reason. Food? Cells? Some other nefarious reason??
    I know the book tells us, but the movie is good in that it never spills all.
    Anyway, just thought i’d mention what i saw in it.
    Also, the bike riding guy was played by real world championship-award-winning Irish Rider Jeremy McWilliams(Or Jezza as he is known in racing circles). He certainly got that bike moving at a rate of knots in the wet!

  • I do appreciate movies that don’t do a lot of spoon-feeding and it lets you “catch up” and not need everything set up. Didn’t feel it that much with this one maybe because those questions never got filled in especially since the book does tackle the majority of those questions.

    McWilliams was pretty cool racing around. Those roadways looked kinda challenging!