In the late 1990s, when The Thin Red Line hit theaters, I happened to catch a viewing that was also attended by a number of WWII vets, some of whom had fought in the Far East. I followed them out of the theater, listening to their furious tones, red in the face at what they’d just seen. What was that? That wasn’t what the war was like! I was there, and that didn’t happen. And so on.
It’s a classic case of people getting into a movie they really know nothing about. The reviews at the time were very clear about how director Terrence Malick operated and continues to operate. He’s prone to voiceovers, eschewing dialogue if possible, more interested in the internal struggle than external relationships. He often focuses on the natural phenomenon amid the turmoil as well as the turmoil itself, lingering on vegetation and animals, slowly drifting from scene to scene. Malick’s films aren’t what I’d generally consider character or plot driven. More often, they are a meditation on a subject. The Thin Red Line isn’t Saving Private Ryan, and it was never meant to be. Malick just doesn’t operate like the majority of his fellow filmmakers. Which is fine, if you as a viewer know that’s the case heading in.
Warning: There be spoilers ahead.
I look back at this experience because I wonder how many male viewers picked up Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with solely the thoughts “naked Scarlett Johansson alien” in their head. And while Under the Skin does deliver on that, it’s not an exploitative, Hollywood sci-fi film by any means. No mad scientist bent on destroying the world, no invasion of mean and angry insectoids from another universe, no monstrous sea creatures rising from the depths of the ocean to battle giant robots. I kind of wonder how many approached it as such, abandoned it in frustration and never made it to the end.
To me, the open-ended nature of the entire film, that space for interpretation, is what makes Under the Skin interesting. Like The Thin Red Line, there’s not much dialogue here. It’s a mix of a few very abstract scenes and a quiet Johansson on a journey of self discovery. At first she prowls city streets of Scotland in her white van (the irony that it is the classic “rape van” should not be lost here), people watching, searching for men, alone. There is constant motion, a rhythm to ScarJo’s movements, the actions of a shark seeking prey. But at one point, she starts to realize there is little difference between her and her prey, which changes everything. She goes from the beast on the prowl to the animal in hiding, a shift in attitude that ends up costing her.
Or maybe not. I mean, that’s what I walked away from it with, but I’m pretty sure you could ask five other people who watched Under the Skin and get five different answers. That’s what Glazer has constructed here, what he wants, a unique experience driven by the viewer’s own thoughts and prejudices. It’s not dissimilar to what directors like Malick, Stanley Kubrick, etc., have achieved before him.
Under the Skin isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t designed to be. But for those willing to buy the ticket and take the ride, it’s worth it.