Directed by: Jonathan Glazer || Produced by: James Wilson, Nick Wechsler
Screenplay by: Walter Campbell, Janathan Glazer || Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Music by: Mica Levi || Cinematography: Daniel Landin || Edited by: Paul Watts || Country: United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 108 minutes
With regards to horror and science-fiction filmmaking, the phrases “slow and atmospheric” and “patient, deliberate storytelling” have become code words for genre films I find both intelligent, transgressive, and powerful (e.g. It Follows , The Witch , Arrival , Blade Runner [1982, 2017]), as well as those I find pretentious, bland, and just plain slow (e.g. Monsters , Ex Machina , any movie by Ti West, etc.). Reviews extolling the lofty themes, limited set-pieces, and minimalist soundtracks of off-beat, off-brand horror or sci-fi have evolved into the modern independent genre filmmaking equivalent of Oscar-bait. These films trade sociopolitical trigger-warnings and historical events for ambitious yet chump-budget renditions of existentialist narratives in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, for sci-fi) or Suspiria (1977, for horror).
Hearing these phrases intrigues yet worries me when they’re applied to the newest film festival horror splash or sci-fi critical darling/box office bomb. Adjectives like “moody” or “atmospheric” indicate a solid hit or miss, in other words, and I’d argue those terms should be more cautiously used in film criticism. What may be “atmospheric” (re: captivating) to one viewer may be interpreted as incoherent by another.
Enter Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a film whose identifiable yet understated visuals, plodding story, and obtuse characters fit into the “miss” category, for my part. Like Hell or High Water or The Belko Experiment (both 2016) released after it, Under the Skin (henceforth, Skin) is another recent genre favorite whose cult following baffles me. Its extended surrealist imagery, esoteric dialogue, robotic acting, and glacial pace tests the patience of even the most diehard fans of deliberate, abstract, concept-driven science-fiction.
A sort of stripped-down, thematic subversion of the 2000 novel of the same name, Skin’s modus operandi involves an otherwise interesting morality play on gender, sexuality, and rape culture undermined by a heavy-handed sci-fi diegesis and uninspired directorial execution. My chief criticisms of this film are, like with most films I dislike, not the content so much as its presentation. Director and co-writer Glazer “stylizes” this story about a predatory, otherworldly being infiltrating humanity as an episodic, dreamlike series of vignettes that fit together as a coherent feature only if you squint. Similar to the “slow, atmospheric” works of Ti West, as well as David Michod’s meandering Rover (2014) or Yorgos Lanthimos’ dystopian satire, The Lobster (2014), Skin is a 10-minute short ballooned to a 108-minute feature. Glazer’s film may not bother with stock characters, bloated action sequences, or superfluous digital FX, but the contrast between its conceptual simplicity and mercilessly slow feature-length narrative is nothing short of excessive.
I might be more tolerant of Skin’s abstract nature and snail’s pace if its visual style was groundbreaking, but that is not the case. Those aforementioned surrealist parts of the film, which play like arthouse versions of Species (1995, an extraterrestrial black widow seducing men to their deaths), are one-note and uninteresting to me. Outside the film’s dreamlike sequences, the film’s perpetual underexposed lighting both indoors and out, during nighttime and day sequences doesn’t compliment the cast’s bland dialogue, nor Mica Levi’s repetitive, ambient soundtrack. To describe this film’s audiovisual style as anything other than sleep-inducing would be dishonest, and its appeal to so many genre diehards has me scratching my head six years from its release (i.e. the film’s aesthetics have not grown on me in the interim).
The movie’s characters are surface-level by design and a function of its story-driven structure. Compared to the film’s questionable yet identifiable cinematography and sound-design, there is little to discuss in regards to character backstory, motivation, or growth, save for the entire cast’s disembodied, muted performances. A trend I’ve noticed in modern screen-acting is the divergence from the classical, stand-and-deliver cornball performances of the 1980s-1990s to either (1) more realistic but overly snarky, casual dialogue a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-present), or (2) robotic, monotone delivery of lofty nonsense a la Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography. Skin’s performances represent the latter extreme, whereby most of the cast don’t act like real people, let alone interesting characters. This might be acceptable given the film’s story-driven structure if the actual story were interesting and had enough depth to fill almost two hours, but as I argued above, it isn’t and doesn’t.
What we’re left with at the end of Under the Skin is a dark, morbid contemplation of sexuality and cosmic subterfuge so vague and esoteric as to be pointless in its current format. The movie is a glorified short stretched to feature-length proportions for no good reason other than to test one’s patience; director Jonathan Glazer’s unique visuals don’t justify the film’s stripped-down narrative structure nor its tedious pace, and after 108 minutes the film’s thematic, brooding “atmosphere” and meaningless dialogue grow tiresome. If the recent work of Denis Villeneuve represent the best of modern slow-burn science-fiction, films like Under the Skin represent the style’s worst and most obtuse, a modern art “masterpiece” of inexplicable abstract indulgence.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With a visual style so dark and dour as to recall Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) and a synthesizer musical score that pails in comparison to the works of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Under the Skin is a genre film for people who don’t like science-fiction or horror. Its stilted narrative progression and muted dialogue make Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Annihilation play like feelgood crowd-pleasers.
— However… at least the film boasts a recognizable auteur style and consistent tone. Its directorial precision is admirable, though misguided.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? Maybe I’ll call my next essay atmospheric and make snide comments to those who call it incoherent nonsense.