Under the Skin

By on May 12, 2014

In a recent minor kerfuffle on the Internet- I know, right? Who’da thunk it? – two writers for otherwise highly respected upscale publications, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, were taken to task for being, shall we say, a bit too enthusiastic in their assessment of actress Scarlett Johansson. Accused of lowering their respective magazines to the quality level of a lowly men’s mag, a la Maxim or FHM or the like, the writers in question came under fire for being a little less than objective and a little too much on the fawning side.

Well, first of all, one can hardly blame any writer for being a bit taken aback by interviewing Johansson. She’s one of those rare female celebrities that appeal as much to women as she does to men, and by most accounts, she’s an intelligent, poised, and thoughtful individual that just happens to be breathtakingly beautiful. In Hollywood? Imagine that!

While perhaps it doesn’t excuse pouring it on a bit thick, oftentimes journalists end up with a very limited amount of time with a given celebrity, which forces them to expand their articles however they can. This can lead to some wonky results, as evidenced by the articles at hand, which stop just short of drooling on the page but could have been worse, to be sure. Should they have dialed it back a bit? Probably. But these things happen, least of all when hot people are involved, and I find it hard to believe that female writers are completely immune to it, either.

Reflecting on my own work, I thought to myself: am I guilty of such things as well? Have I ever let my little head do the thinking for my big head? While I’ve certainly been guilty of being a bit on the flattering side when it comes to certain actresses- a quick read-through of a number of my articles revealed a consistent fan worship of Amanda Seyfried, Amber Heard, Alison Brie (apparently I have a thing for girls who have a name beginning in ‘A’), Emma Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, and yes, Scarlett Johansson, among a few others.

However, I was pleased to see that none of this affected my bottom line. By which I mean, none of it colored my reviews in any way shape or form. If a movie or show sucked, I said just that, regardless of who was in it, and in spite of whether I gave certain performers in it a “pass” because I liked them. Hey, who hasn’t been guilty of watching something they knew was probably going to suck just because it had a certain actor they liked in it? At least I didn’t let it color my judgment, which is something.

Scarlett Johansson plays a seductive alien in the brooding indie "Under the Skin."  Courtesy of imdb.com

Scarlett Johansson plays a seductive alien in the brooding indie “Under the Skin.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

Which brings me to “Under the Skin.” The more lower-profile of Johansson’s releases in the last month or so- the other being a little under-the-radar indie flick you might have heard of: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”- if you’ve heard of the film at all, it’s likely because it’s gained some notoriety as being the first film in which Johansson bares it all, or pretty close to it, at least. If that weren’t the case, it’s hard to imagine a little film like “Under the Skin” getting much press at all, and if a star of Johansson’s stature weren’t in it, it probably wouldn’t get any. It’s not that kind of movie.

Now, as a straight guy, I will confess to looking forward to the movie for less-than-admirable reasons. I’m only human, and somewhere not-so-deep inside me lurks an inner twelve-year-old that still gets a little excited when a girl gets naked, and it’s rare for a star of Johansson’s stature to do this sort of thing in the first place. So, sure, it wasn’t exactly something that made me less likely to see it. But, at the same time, I am a professional critic, and I get paid for my opinions on films, not for notifications on celebrity skin. (Cue the Hole song!) Could I keep my hormones in check and review the film from an objective place?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. For those drawn to the film simply to see Johansson’s, um, considerable assets, the good news is, you don’t have long to wait. It happens within the first five minutes of the movie and at key junctures throughout. If that’s all you’re there to see, you won’t be disappointed. Johansson is nothing if not easy on the eyes.

And I will say that it was nice to see a girl in the nude that was a natural beauty and not rail-thin and who had undergone plastic surgery within an inch of their life. There’s a lot of that going on these days, and it just doesn’t do it for me, so seeing a naturally-gifted talent like Johansson or Kat Dennings or Christina Hendricks is great, and it’s easy-to-understand why women would be as responsive to that as any given man. Granted, no one wants to compete with any of those girls in real life, but it’s still nice to see a real woman with all her real parts intact in a movie or TV show.

As for the movie itself, you often hear about celebrities who outright won’t do nudity or could care less about doing it, while other say things like: “If it were the right project and I really believed it was necessary, I would do it.” Is “Under the Skin” the right project for Johansson to have done so in? Hard to say. Obviously, she did believe in it, or she wouldn’t have done such extensive nudity in the film. But, of all the past projects she could have done it in, was this the best choice? Probably not.

“Under the Skin” is a slow-moving tone poem of a film that plays like what would happen if Davids Lynch and Cronenberg teamed up to direct a reboot of “Species.” It’s very methodically-paced, like a Lynch film; and very clinically observed from a distance with cool resolve like a Cronenberg film. It’s also got one of those unnerving scores like the ones in “Requiem for a Dream” or “The Hours” that will likely annoy the crap out of some people. None of these things are likely to appeal to a wide audience on the whole, if I’m being honest, but then, it isn’t that kind of film.

Director Jonathan Glazer, best known for the excellent “Sexy Beast” and the bizarre, off-putting “Birth,” does not make movies for the everyman, as it were. Maybe one day he will, but today is not that day. Instead, he’s made a cryptic, otherworldly tale of an alien that seduces and feeds off of random Scotsmen, in a decidedly unorthodox fashion. There’s little dialogue and most of what exists seems largely improvised. (And what comes from the mouth of any given Scotsman all but screams for subtitles.)

Instead, you get a lot of gritty city scenes and beautifully-photographed country-sides and mountain ranges and the like, as Johansson’s character trolls for victims or tries to avoid the more aggressive ones. About halfway through, she grows a conscious of sorts and decides to go off-grid from her alien overseers and gets into various intense situations, many of which involve dealing with the affect she has on other men.

In other words, the entire movie is largely about how women are objectified and how that affects and often entitles certain men. So, there’s definitely a method to the madness, and that method, somewhat ironically, ties directly into all the fuss going on about Johansson herself. We do indeed live in a culture that likes to objectify things, and that certainly applies to men as well as women.

So, when we fall prey to that very objectification, is it really all that surprising? (Note the above poster for the film, which pretty clearly touts the sort of thing the film explores in a supposedly objective way, and uses it as a selling point.) I’m not going to side with either the journalists that were called out or the ones who did the complaining. What’s the point? We’re all guilty of it at some point or another. Does simply calling people out on it make one better than another person? Hardly.

That said, I will continue to do my best not to let my more dubious reasons for seeing a film outweigh my overall assessment of said film. As a critic, it’s the least I can do. In the case of “Under the Skin,” there’s maybe not enough going on underneath the surface (pun definitely intended) to warrant going out of your way to see it, but even if the movie scores a mild C+, Johansson will always be an A in my book, and if the haters don’t like that, well then, that’s their problem.


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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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