Jonathan Glazer has directed three feature-length films in his 15-year career. “Sexy Beast” I fully understood and fully enjoyed. “Birth” I fully understood and didn’t enjoy. “Under the Skin” I didn’t fully understand but enjoy more each time I think about it.
I’m going to tell you why, but I have no idea whether I know what Glazer was thinking – or whether he could exactly say himself.
Comparisons with “2001” arise from the opening sequence, partly because it looks like a spaceship docking (it isn’t) and partly because it sets a tone of mystification that’s never dispelled. As with Stanley Kubrick, you’ll fill in a lot of blanks, and that will prove a challenge or a chore.
The movie has just one character of consequence, an unnamed creature who adopts the skin of a human being (Scarlett Johansson) and cruises northern Scotland in a van, looking for men who won’t be missed. These who join her disappear into her, or into the system to which she’s connected (that’s the only way to describe it) in a process Glazer depicts as a slow sinking into black nothingness, where they’re reduced to ghostly sacks of skin.
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This experiment fails when she takes a deformed man on a van ride. Either she feels pity and does not “claim” him, or the system rejects him. Either way, she abandons her quest and begins to live inside her human body, exploring its limits and trying to relate to other people as people.
First-time feature writer Walter Campbell created a screenplay from Michel Faber’s novel. Campbell and Glazer make some symbols clear: The creature studies an ant and seems to be a kind of soldier insect herself, pursued by a minder (a male motorcyclist) who cleans up after her.
Yet the filmmakers leave many things up to you. Is she on the run because she let the deformed guy go? Is her controller trying to punish her because she bought defective goods, so to speak? Or does she abandon her mission (whatever that was) because she longs to belong to our species?
Virtually all science fiction functions as metaphor, and I took this film to be a metaphor for the act of becoming fully human.
When we operate solely on a sexual level, we consume others and behave as a beast. When we become sensitive to others, we expose ourselves to danger: Our experiences don’t always lead to happiness, but the happiness we do find will be of a deeper kind. We have to get under our own skins (and under each others’), and that involves risk.
Or maybe it’s a parable about beings who have a destiny – even if it’s the destruction of others – and, like Oedipus, cause more harm when they try to escape that fate. Or maybe it’s about none of these topics.
I know three things for certain. It’s slow, but I always wondered where it was going to go. Cinematographer Daniel Landin, who may be best known for Radiohead videos Glazer directed, makes Earth cold and unappealing before the creature gains empathy, and forbidding but beautiful as she seeks to be human.
And Johansson gives what may be her most complex performance with almost no dialogue. She conveys danger, fear, confusion and empathy almost entirely with her eyes and body language. The woman who acted so effectively with only her voice in “Her” does equally well in “Under Our Skin” without it.