Review: Under the Skin

I saw this over the weekend, knowing nothing before walking in other than that it had Scarlett Johansen and wasn’t the one of her with the trailer in front of Captain America.  (Man did that movie look good until they explained the premise).  So when it opened with an extended sequence of staring into a light that slowly morphed into an eye I started surprised, then immediately adjusted to “Oh, I’m in an art movie,” mode.  Thanks gratuitous and heavy-handed light-eye imagery!

If you’re looking for a successful attack on traditional story telling technique in film, or a movie carried almost entirely by its images and performances, this is your thing.  It was very well done, and I’m very inclined to pick up the book it was based on, if only to see how that story got told in prose.  (I still haven’t looked up anything about the movie, so all I know about the alleged premise is what the people I went with explained over dinner after)

I spent a good while after the movie pondering it, and did a lot of listening to the six other people I saw it with talk about it – what they liked, what they didn’t like – and by the time I’d polished off the delightful walnut-gorgonzola-cranberry salad concoction I had for dinner, I’d come to a very solid conclusion: It was a really well done movie I did not like at all.

The brilliance of the movie is that it’s very easy to construct a narrative of what happened, and seven people who all saw it can then proceed to argue about what the actual narrative was without any of them being conclusively wrong or right.  I love successful narratives that require their audiences to do some of the heavy lifting.  But what isn’t debatable about what happened are the following: (I’m about to spoiler nearly everything that can be spoilered about the movie)

1) Scarlett Johanson’s character starts of as a non-human, gender-role swapped predator, driving around and picking men without family or connections who are out walking alone at night

2) This ends badly for the men

3) She decides to stop doing the predator thing after encountering a deformed man who is the opposite of the skeevy guys she’s been encountering all film.

4) Experiments with being “normal” or “more human” lead her to spend some time with a genuinely nice guy, but all fail and lead to her freaking out and running away.

5) A lumberjack tries to rape her, realizes she’s not human, then sets her on fire.

6) The end.

Uhm.

It’s possible I’ve never said this before, but I am completely dissatisfied with that unhappy ending.  At the metaphorical/thematic level, it’s asserting that we (maybe just women, maybe everybody) have a choice between being a predator, or being raped and set on fire, a proposition I could spend a great many words taking issue with. At the more concrete, literal level, it seems to be claiming that a creature capable of single-handedly luring men to their demise with phenomenal consistency can’t handle a randy lumberjack and just gets abused and burned alive? The only other woman in the entire movie drowns while trying to rescue her dog, so if it’s trying to present the thematic content as something to then discuss and criticize, the discussion and criticism is completely absent.

I mean, I’m all for setting people on fire as a means of problem solving, especially plot problems, and cinders are a great end point for character development. But this movie didn’t earn it.

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