Saturday, September 13, 2014
Movie Review: "Under the Skin"
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Aliens have long been a subject of fascination in movies — some lovable (“E.T.”), some hideous (the “Alien” series), but almost always interesting. However, as “Under the Skin” makes abundantly clear, they can also be boring. That’s not really meant to be a knock on Scarlett Johansson, who plays an alien inhabiting the body of a woman on the prowl for men in Scotland. She frankly doesn’t have a very dynamic character to portray here, which I’m sure is part of the point in the script by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer (who also directs). But it sure doesn’t make for compelling viewing when long stretches of the film unfold in general silence with little to no action.
Glazer, who has been out of the movie scene for nearly a decade, made his very promising film directing debut in 2000 with the crime drama “Sexy Beast.” He’s not a filmmaker afraid to take chances, and with “Under the Skin,” an amalgamation of science fiction and horror, is able to occasionally generate a sense of uneasiness and dread. A scene involving a family at the beach with Johansson’s emotionally detached character watching a terrible series of events unfold is a perfect example of Glazer’s skill.
Bateman stars as Guy Trilby (who is employed as a proofreader), an admitted underachiever in education, having never advanced beyond the eighth grade. He uses that schooling deficiency to exploit a loophole in the rules of the National Quill Spelling Bee, allowing him to compete against children generally a quarter of his age. His participation doesn’t sit well with anyone, be it parents, the spelling bee officials or the competitors themselves. But Trilby doesn’t care. Instead, he responds to everyone with a sharp tongue and is exceptionally quick with insults. That acerbic wit is aimed at adults and children alike, with the script by Andrew Dodge generating laughter frequently, although you might feel a bit guilty along the way. Case in point: Trilby’s devious new use for a ketchup packet.
That said, the story’s driving action — as thin as it is — doesn’t generate much excitement and is too redundant. Much of the alien’s activities involve driving the Scottish countryside, picking up single men and taking them back to her place, where they meet their ultimate demise. How this happens is a creepily effective conceit in which nary a drop of blood is spilled, with the viewer left to speculate what exactly is the overall goal of the aliens. Johansson’s outer space visitor, like all characters in the film, is unnamed, but it seems clear she isn’t the lone alien in Scotland.
There are some memorable visuals and at times the film’s soundtrack is effectively haunting, which leads me to understand why Johansson would be attracted to being involved in a project that’s far away from the big-budget and high-profile “Avengers” world. Still, the movie’s rhythm is sometimes just off-putting, while the languid pace becomes a very difficult hurdle to overcome. Clearly, it’s a movie built much more on atmosphere than action. While that approach might work for an undisputed sci-fi masterpiece such as “2001,” “Under the Skin” is ultimately too bleak and cold around the heart to care much for what transpires.
(Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.)