×

Telluride Film Review: ‘Under the Skin’

Jonathan Glazer's long-awaited third feature is an undeniably ambitious but ultimately torpid and silly tale of an alien on the prowl.

With:

Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek, Roy Armstrong, Alison Chand, Ben Mills, Oscar Mills, Lee Fanning, Paul Brannigan, Marius Bincu, Scott Dymond, Stephen Horn, Adam Pearson, May Mewes, Michael Moreland, Gerry Goodfellow, Dave Acton, Jessica Mance.

Scarlett Johansson stars as a woman who falls to Earth — Scotland, to be precise — in “Under the Skin,” an undeniably ambitious but ultimately torpid and silly tale of an alien on the prowl in human clothing that marks the long-awaited third feature by “Sexy Beast” director Jonathan Glazer (nine years after butting heads with New Line over his very fine Nicole Kidman vehicle “Birth”). Very loosely based on Michael Faber’s acclaimed 2001 novel, here reduced nearly to the point of abstraction, the pic strenuously attempts to show us the world through “alien eyes” but ends up seeming rather like a feature-length “Candid Camera” show where, instead of being punk’d, contestants get swallowed up by a mass of intergalactic goo. The sort of movie that might have worked better as a gallery installation one could enter and exit at will, “Skin” is outre enough to amass a small coterie of defenders, though commercial distributors won’t be chief among them.

Glazer, whose background is in musicvideos, has lost none of his ability to generate strikingly original images, as the opening of “Under the Skin” confirms: A small pinhole in the center of the screen grows gradually larger until it becomes a white, doughnut-shaped mass. A black orb then moves toward the center of the doughnut and makes contact, until what we are looking at resembles a human eye. Next, a motorcyclist, zipping through what appear to be the Scottish Highlands, stops to remove a corpse from a roadside ditch and loads it into the back of a cargo van. Then, against an all-white screen that suggests the galactic hotel room from “2001” stripped of its furniture, the nude owner of that humanoid eye (Johansson), herself a dead ringer for the corpse, dresses in the lifeless woman’s clothes (stiletto heels, fishnet stockings, et al.) and sets off on her journey.

Popular on Variety

We seem to have witnessed some kind of birth here, though Glazer (who adapted Faber’s novel together with Walter Campbell) is deliberately short on details. In the book, this strange creature was called Isserley and had come to Earth with the mission of luring handsome human males into her trap so that they could be turned into a kind of alien caviar. Here, Johansson bears no name and her motives — if any — are markedly less clear. In his attempt to render an alien p.o.v., Glazer devotes much of his pic’s running time to Johansson traversing Scotland in said cargo van, stopping to ask directions from various male passersby, whom she subsequently tries to lure into the van. For those thus tempted, the night is likely to end in an abandoned squat, where Johansson uses her mysterious alien powers (and various states of undress) to lead the men into a strange dark pool that consumes them like quicksand. And that, as we later learn, isn’t the half of it.

Glazer’s initially intriguing formal conceit is that Johansson — reasonably well disguised under a dark wig, cheap-hooker couture and Brit accent — is one of the few pro thesps here, interacting with real unawares Scotsmen, all of it captured by small digital cameras mounted in and around the van. (The strategy shares something with the one employed by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami to film the driving scenes in his “Taste of Cherry.”) Glazer does the same hidden-camera thing when Johansson is walking down a crowded Glasgow street, or ushered by a mob of female revelers into a nightclub throbbing with strobe lights and house music. In one of the movie’s more inspired, lyrical episodes, she offers a ride to a badly disfigured man en route to do his grocery shopping under cover of night, and seems not to notice his Elephant Man-like deformity. In one of the more inscrutable encounters, she fails in her efforts to seduce a Czech swimmer at a rocky beach, then bashes his skull in with a stone.

And so it goes, for a needlessly protracted 108 minutes, as initial intrigue gives way to repetition and tedium. Glazer has always been longer on atmosphere and uncanny moods than on narrative, but the fatal flaw of “Under the Skin” isn’t that not much happens; it’s that what does happen isn’t all that interesting. The world as seen through alien eyes, it turns out, looks much like the world as seen through the eyes of a schizophrenic  (“Repulsion”), a paranoiac (Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane”) or a sociopath (Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora”) — which, if it’s Glazer’s point, is one he makes early and often, Johansson doing her best to convey varying degrees of blankness and incomprehension at her own actions and those of others.

Owing to the dominant GoPro video aesthetic, “Under the Skin” becomes visually monotonous, too, only in a few more conventionally staged sequences featuring the kind of sharp, painterly images that graced Glazer’s prior features and the opening moments of this one. Similarly, all of the pic’s tech qualities are intentionally rough-hewn, with the combination of noisy location sound recording and cast’s thick Scottish brogues rendering large swathes of dialogue incomprehensible.

Telluride Film Review: 'Under the Skin'

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 29, 2013. (Also in Venice Film Festival — competing; Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 108 MIN.

Production:

(U.K.) A StudioCanal release of a Film 4 and BFI presentation in association with Silver Reel, Creative Scotland and FilmNation Entertainment of a Nick Wechsler/JW Films production. (International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, Beverly Hills.) Produced by James Wilson, Nick Wechsler. Co-producers, Alexander O’Neal, Gillian Berrie. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Reno Antoniades, Walter Campbell, Claudia Bluemhuber, Ian Hutchinson, Florian Dargel.

Crew:

Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Screenplay, Glazer, Walter Campbell, based on the novel by Michael Faber. Camera (Deluxe color), Daniel Landin; editor, Paul Watts, music, Mica Levi; music producer/supervisor, Peter Raeburn; production designer, Chris Oddy; art director, Emer O’Sullivan; costume designer, Steven Noble; sound (Dolby Digital), Nigel Albermaniche; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Johnnie Burn; visual effects supervisors, Tom Debenham, Dominic Parker; visual effects, One Of Us; stunt coordinator, Gareth Milne; assistant director, Nick Heckstall Smith; second unit director, Tom Debenham; casting, Kathleen Crawford.

With:

Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek, Roy Armstrong, Alison Chand, Ben Mills, Oscar Mills, Lee Fanning, Paul Brannigan, Marius Bincu, Scott Dymond, Stephen Horn, Adam Pearson, May Mewes, Michael Moreland, Gerry Goodfellow, Dave Acton, Jessica Mance.

More Film

  • Ariel Winograd'TOD@S CAEN' film premiere, Los

    Viacom International Studios Signs First Look Deal with Ariel Winograd (EXCLUSIVE)

    MADRID  — Adding to a powerful and still growing talent roster, Viacom International Studios (VIS) has clinched a first-look deal with Argentine writer-director Ariel Winograd whose latest movie, “The Heist of the Century,” has just become one of the biggest Argentine openers in history. The multi-year pact takes in the development and production of not [...]

  • William Bogert Dead: 'Small Wonder' Actor

    William Bogert, Who Appeared in 'War Games,' 'Small Wonder,' Dies at 83

    TV, film and theater actor William Bogert, who appeared in a recurring role on 1980s sitcom “Small Wonder” and in films such as “War Games,” died Jan. 12 in New York. He was 83. On “Small Wonder,” which ran from 1985 to 1989, Bogert played Brandon Brindle, the Lawsons’ neighbor and Harriet’s father who became [...]

  • 1917 Movie

    Why '1917' Is the Last Film That Should Be Winning the Oscar (Column)

    There’s a feeling I always get at the end of a long Oscar night when the movie that won isn’t a terrible choice, but it’s the safe, blah, MOR predictable choice, the one that conforms to the dullest conventional wisdom about the kinds of movies Oscar voters prefer, because in the core of their being [...]

  • Civil Rights Drama 'Praying for Sheetrock'

    Civil Rights Drama 'Praying for Sheetrock' in the Works as Feature Film (EXCLUSIVE)

    Enderby Entertainment is developing a feature film based on Melissa Fay Greene’s civil rights drama “Praying for Sheetrock,” Variety has learned exclusively. The non-fiction book, published in 1991, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, Georgia Historical Society Bell Award and the ACLU National Civil [...]

  • Jared Harris arrives at the 26th

    No, Jared Harris is Not Playing Doctor Octopus in Marvel's 'Morbius'

    The first-ever trailer for Marvel and Sony’s next Spider-man spinoff “Morbius” left comic book fans reeling with theories. While the plight of the main character, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) – a scientist dying of a rare blood disease who accidentally turns himself into a vampire – seemed ripped right out of the comics, the [...]

  • SAG Awards 2020: What You Didn't

    SAG Awards 2020: From Charlize Theron to 'Parasite,' What You Didn't See on TV

    Brad Pitt made a crack about his marriages. Robert De Niro got political. And Jennifer Aniston talked about appearing in a commercial for Bob’s Big Boy. Those were just some of thing that happened on stage at the SAG Awards that were broadcast on TNT/TBS on Sunday night. Popular on Variety However, Variety was inside [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content