"An alien in human form is on a journey through Scotland."
This tagline, together with a trailer full of enigmatic images, grand cinematography, and a handful of eerie lines of dialogue were the most I knew about Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin before watching it.
I'm glad I didn't read any more.
Every review I've found of the film could be said to spoil it. No critic revealed a twist or payoff, but most recounted pieces of the plot, which reduces it to a story. Under the Skin is a story, a luscious and ingeniously structured one, but more it's a piece of storytelling, something to behold with every one of your senses alert--even touch, since your skin literally crawls watching certain events transpire.
Glazer directs each scene so precisely that the mystery unravels itself second-by-second for a sustained 108 minutes. The abstract title sequence is understood rather quickly, but the significance of the voiceover, Scarlett Johansson making sounds, isn't fully grasped until the climactic ending. Every moment becomes an experiential payoff. The result is a movie so intense I could hardly breathe in most scenes.
It's also, as many reviewers have rightly pointed out, unlike anything that's come before it, though it evokes a dozen comparisons to elements of other films.
Thematically, Under the Skin poses similar questions of what it means to be (human) as in Scarlett Johannson's last work, Her.
The movie exhausts you like watching Requiem for a Dream or, because its adaptation lost the persistent suspense, reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
As a pitch, it must have come across as another femme fatale alien plot, particularly Species.
It's noir in the way Mulholland Drive adapted the genre, and otherworldly like most of Lynch's work, yet as grounded in realism as 2012's brutal Amour.
What's brilliant about Under the Skin is that it's none of these films. It's not even the sum of their parts. It simply wields powerful cinematic tools to deliver what science fiction has always strived to accomplish: create another world to illuminate truths about our own.
At the core, this film is ontology, probing the nature of being--what it means to exist, empathize, love, and feed. Lofty ambitions, but the power of SciFi has always been its ability to examine these questions from an alien perspective. Glazer utilizes the potential of the genre as well as Kubrick, and he deserves this comparison others have already made. That said, Under the Skin isn't just a philosophical treatise. It captivates and terrifies as well as any commercial alien flick we've seen in recent decades. Futuristic technology, creature effects, and elements of true horror remain, but the scariest moments aren't camera tricks in a ventilation shaft: they're quiet scenes so disturbing you want to scream the whole time.
I think any experiential film deserves praise, for better (Martha Marcy May Marlene) or worse (Avatar). It's why we go to the movies, The Academy Awards tells us every year. Unlike most, though, Under the Skin lingers with you; its title is at least a double, maybe triple entendre. I left the theater mesmerized and convinced this is why we go to the movies, certainly to science fiction movies. I wasn't sure if I was filled with more joy or terror, but I knew I wanted to see it again, and again after that.
Follow David Michael McFarlane on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dmichaelmick