On the one hand, I have to hand it to director Jonathan Glazer — you can tell when viewing his latest, Under The Skin, that’s he’s planning for the long haul here : oh, sure, self-appointed cineastes are talking about this one in breathless, reverent tones already, but this is a movie that’s designed from the outset to grow in stature as time goes on, a pre-planned “cult classic.” And I’m sure that’s what many will eventually hail it as. But will it deserve such lofty status?
The simple answer is : yes and no. Glazer has definitely put together a visual marvel here, with every frame being worthy of slapping up on a gallery wall. It’s worth seeing for that alone. And it definitely sucks you into its singularly surreal world and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. Everything from the purposely annoying electro-minimalist musical score to the composition of each shot to the sparse but loaded-with-intent dialogue to the precisely-timed sound effects is meticulous in its planning, execution, and presentation. It’s easy to see how the art snobs have fallen in love with this thing.
But it’s also a remarkably distant (none of the characters even has a name), clinical work with no room for spontaneity or, dare I say it, soul. Glazer’s story of an alien seductress (played by Scarlett Johansson, who really does git nekkid every bit as often as you’ve heard) preying on horny, lonely (and in one instance horribly deformed) males until she eventually learns to experience a degree of humanity before finally meeting a tragic end can also fairly be viewed as a Lifeforce redux loaded under layers of pretense, as well, so the small but vocal army of folks who positively despise this film already aren’t entirely wrong to do so, either.
For my own part, I guess I fall somewhere in the middle — I have a certain amount of sympathy for the arguments made by both the “love it” and “hate it” camps, and at the end of the day have to admit that I didn’t feel engaged enough in the proceedings to come away as a member of either. The flick kept me more enthralled than interested (if that even makes any sense), and while I left the theater with a general sense of being impressed by what I’d seen, I was also keenly aware of the fact that Glazer was more impressed by what he’d done than I was, because for all the tits, ass, bush, and cock on display, it’s Under The Skin‘s propensity for gazing at its own celluloid navel that really does begin to grate even as you’re staring right along with it. Glazer knows you can’t turn your eyes away from what’s happening on the screen — even if, in fairness, it’s a rather threadbare series of events — and he can’t resist indulging himself at your expense by constantly subjecting you a stream of (admittedly gorgeously presented) “high weirdness” for its own sake.
The slim plot —I guess Glazer and Walter Campbell’s screenplay is actually based on a novel by Michael Faber, though it’s difficult to see a novel’s worth of material here — didn’t bug me in the least, nor did the essential predictability of the main narrative, but Glazer’s inability and/or unwillingness to engage viewers on anything more than a stylistic, surface level did, and that’s where he’s left himself open to a fair amount of entirely justifiable criticism. Yes, this flick is a marvel to look at — but it would be so much more rewarding if we actually had a reason to give a fuck about what we’re looking at.
Still, there’s little doubt that this is one we’ll be hearing about for a long time to come. The story is (again, purposely) presented with enough ambiguity to leave it open to multiple interpretations, the atmosphere Glazer constructs is an entirely unique one, and the cinematography and visual effects are flat-out breathtaking. All of which lead me to want to like Under The Skin more than I did, and prevent me from actively disliking it as much as it could be argued it deserves to be. It’s probably at least half as good as Glazer thinks it is, and that’s enough to make it worth one viewing. But I’m certainly in no rush to see it again.