Telluride: 'Under the Skin,' Starring Scarlett Johansson, Fails to Impress

'Under the Skin'

Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien with the resemblance of a human on a journey through Scotland in director Jonathan Glazer's sc-fi drama. 

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Jonathan Glazer hasn't made many feature films, but the two that he made prior to this year were undeniably interesting: Sexy Beast (2001), in which Ben Kingsley plays a violent sociopath (for which the actor earned a best supporting Oscar nom), and Birth (2004), in which Nicole Kidman plays a woman who has a relationship with a 10-year-old boy she believes to possess the soul of her dead husband.

That's presumably why Ralph Fiennes, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alexander Payne, among other notables, came out to the Sheridan Opera House on Saturday for the second screening of Glazer's latest Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson plays as an alien who visits and tries out life on Earth. And that's also presumably why a not inconsiderable number of audience members were bummed -- and walked out -- when the film proved to be a stylish but lacking in substance. (It is still seeking a U.S. distributor.)

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Before the film unspooled, Glazer told the audience that 10 years ago he read the Michel Faber book which loosely inspired the film and decided that it would be interesting to show "what it's like for an alien to see our world." He then adapted the book into a script with William Campbell, got Johansson on board and shot it in Scotland. 

But when a film takes nine years to make, from start to finish, it usually means two things: It's a passion project of a somewhat self-indulgent director, and it's probably got some problems. I'm afraid that this film is no exception.

Johansson's character is an alien who inhabits and revivifies a human corpse, and then proceeds to drive around Scotland picking up strangers and making random stops. Along the way, she witnesses and/or experiences, with wide but emotionless eyes, death, desire, sex and assault, among other things that this world has to offer. Only a few words of dialog are spoken throughout the film -- and many of them come from Scotsmen who are virtually incomprehensible.

To me, Under the Skin is a lot like another visually beautiful but plotless and pretentious film from a director who is capable of so much more: David Cronenberg's recent Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson.

In any event, I respect Glazer's ambition and obvious talent for creating arresting images -- a skill he has put to good use in the music videos that he has directed. But I'm afraid arresting images do not alone make for a great film. This one ambles along for only 108 minutes, but it feels a lot longer because so little actually happens during that time, and that which does is not all that interesting or enlightening.

Johansson herself is not the source of the film's problems. She totally commits to the part, to the extent that she even performs several scenes of full-frontal nudity. Unfortunately, many, if not most, of the people who ultimately will check out this film will probably do so solely in order to check out those scenes.

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