Back in 2007, back before I hoarded video games, I hoarded books. My husband and I would frequently go to bookstores and peruse the aisles for our next great read. There is a nice little used bookstore called Starlight Books in Newmarket, Ontario, where I bought a science fiction novel called, Under the Skin by Michel Faber. This book was one of those that once I picked it up, I could not put it down. It was a distopian tale that was out of this world, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it months after finishing it. I later lent out my copy to several friends and family members.
When I heard Scarlett Johansson was starring in Under the Skin, a movie based on this obscure book, I was all, “SAY WHAT?!” I never place movies based on books too high up on the expectation scale, as I have seen many whose novels of origin were far better than the film. But, I still muster curiosity when a movie is released of which I’ve read its book.
Under the Skin: the movie, has Scarlett Johansson play an alien disguised as a woman whose task it is to roam the motorways and streets of Scotland at night to lure young lonely men back to her crib to kill them so that their bodies could be used for a purpose that is never revealed to the viewer. There are others of Scarlett’s kind that roam the countryside by motocycle, their task is to basically supervise her and clean up behind her. There is little to no dialogue in this film, other than brief convos between Scarlett and the men she is trying to lure. Gorgeously shot in Glasgow, Scotland, it is obvious that much care was taken with every shot of this film. The suspense was palpable. Well, at least it was for me…but I get that some people who didn’t understand the plot would confuse suspense for boredom.
Without knowing what Scarlett’s character’s deal is, one could only conclude at the start that she is some kind of serial killer until we get a little more insight. Unfortunately, this is a very slow reveal, and I hazard many people would drop this movie like a hot potato unless they are the type who enjoy convoluted plotlines. Being left to their own imagination to fill in the gaps is where this film leaves the viewer…and there are plenty of gaps to fill in Under the Skin: the Movie. I was able to enjoy this film a bit; I knew what was going on from the beginning because I read the novel. However, my husband, with whom I watched this film, was confused to the point he said, “this is dumb” about 20 minutes in. I can’t say I blame him.
The movie is a very stripped-down version of the book. For one thing, the novel develops the characters and gives a glimpse into thought processes, telling the story from Scarlett’s character’s perspective – undeveloped in the film. Pertinent plot elements are revealed in the book but nowhere to be found in the movie – like why is she collecting these men? It’s like everyone involved with this movie has deep crucial secrets they’ll never tell on screen, and there is no way you will have any idea what is going on. That, my friends, disappointed me.
I did enjoy this film to an extent, but I must say, like many films based on books, I think the soul of the novel is missing from this movie. And if we are to argue this movie is loosely based on a novel – fine – but, Under the Skin still doesn’t stand straight on its own. Relying on the viewer to come up with their own imagination didn’t really work here. I had the experience of reading the story going in, so I was able to follow along. But, someone like my husband, who never read the book might find the movie very confusing, convoluted and in many cases, boring.
For what it’s worth, if you are looking for an intriguing read, I highly recommend reading Michel Faber’s Under the Skin for the full picture.
Under the Skin (2013)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Watched on Netflix
See also: Under the skin / Faber, Michel. 2000.