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27 July 2014

Under the Skin (Film Review): “Sex and Humanity”

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[Spoiler Alert!] Suggestion: Watch the film before reading any review. I watched it without any idea what the film was about, and the experience was quite interesting.

“Under the Skin” is a sci-film loosely based on Michel Faber’s 2000 novel with same title.  Faber’s novel is a dark satire on humanity, capitalism, environmental decline and sexual identity. The novel is more complex than the film in terms of plot but both deals with a female alien who takes the form of an attractive woman to attract men and trap them.  The novel is clear regarding the female alien’s purpose. Hitchhikers are seduced, drugged, and then fatten so they can be consumed as meat in the woman's alien planet. However, English director Jonathan Glazer, who also helmed “Sexy Beast” (2000) and “Birth” (2004), chose a more ambivalent approach and in so doing, the film takes on a more ominous mood and it becomes ripe for multiple interpretations. Nonetheless, the film still explores the concept of being human, and being a woman in the cold inhuman culture of consumerism.


Instead of faithfully adapting the novel, Glazer focused solely on the female protagonist experience on earth and provided obscure reference to her planetary origin. Fortunately, Glazer’s diversion from the original text only added texture to Faber’s universe. In a way, the film is like a companion piece to the novel, than an adaptation.

In his interview with Scott Tobias in “The Dissolve” (April 4, 2014), Glazer stated, “The central things in the book are in the film. Not dramatically, but spiritually there’s a fundamental thing that holds the film and the book up the same.”

Even more interesting was parts of the film were shot using hidden cameras. Scarlett Johansson, who played the alien, drove around the streets of Glasgow, Scotland asking real men. The male character with facial deformity was also a real person, and not an actor wearing prosthetic make-up. 

The film contains much male and female nudity, including shots of men with erect penises. Definitely, this depends on how liberal the censors are in your country. If the censors are more conservative, they may have already clipped these explicit scenes, which will be unfortunate because they are not gratuitous.

The film editing is also not hurried but precise, which is appropriate for the mood of the film. The music and the cinematography were outstanding, adding layers to the film and moving Glazer’s narrative. However, with very little dialogues, “Under the Skin” may bore some viewers. Fortunately, Johansson’s magnetic and sometimes eerie performance kept the film engaging. From the very start, even if you do not have an idea about the film, Johansson already looked robotic, artificial, clumsy and cold. There is something inhuman underneath her character’s physical beauty.

“Under the Skin” is one of those films that may elicit boos from some viewers, or may draw out praises from others. It all depends on how you view the film. Should film have a clear structured narrative with dialogues to engage viewers visually and emotionally? Should film be like a moving set of images like expressionist or abstract paintings that demand more scrutiny from viewers?  The answer depends on how lazy you are.


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