I wrote about the David Bowie movie The Man Who Fell To Earth not too long ago, and specifically about how the cultural associations that David Bowie brings with him to whatever he does are what makes that movie’s thin premise work. Under the Skin is a very similar movie to the Man Who Fell to Earth, in that it’s a slower paced movie with very little exposition about a single alien who comes to Earth and starts to mate with Earthlings. A lot of the reviews I’ve read have even explicitly talked about the significance of having Scarlet Johansson as the alien here, and how casting someone who is so well known for being a sex symbol in the role of a person who is fundamentally alienated from their own overly sexualized body is a big part of the reason why they found the movie compelling.
It didn’t work that way for me. It’s not that Scarlet Johansson is bad in the movie, but she’s given such a thin character – one who hardly ever talks and whose inner life is utterly remote from the viewer – that it would take a really amazing performer to make the story work, and unlike Bowie she doesn’t have the sort of presence which can make you fascinated by her even if she’s doing nothing. Yes, when she’s just standing there you often want to ogle her beauty, but you don’t necessarily want to think about what she’s thinking about, which is what would ultimately hold your attention for longer.
If you think about the difference between Bowie and Johansson you can see why it would work for one but not the other. Bowie is an icon, a guy who is evocative of many different characters and eras all at once. Johansson on the other hand… Yes, she’s extremely attractive. Yes, she’s doing a good job of being a star, since she’s doing what stars do and balancing Marvel movies against smaller artier movies like this. Yes, she does attract our attention - she was briefly in the tabloid eye after her marriage to Ryan Renolds broke up (although she has her shit together enough that you don’t see her popping up on gossip sites regularly.) In other words, she’s not that different from Amy Adams (attractive, Her/Man of Steel, not super-tabloidy) or Jennifer Lawrence (attractive, American Hustle / X-Men, not super tabloidy), or Emma Stone (attractive, Easy A / Spider Man, not super tabloidy). You can’t substitute anyone else for David Bowie and still have it be the exact same, but I’m not so sure that you couldn’t switch out Johansson for a lot of other actresses and have this movie come out almost exactly like it did.
If there was more going on in terms of the plot then the lack of a charismatic lead performance wouldn’t be a problem. It is a problem, however, because the movie is going for a mysterious tone, one that wants to balance being off putting with being intriguing, but it doesn’t pull it off because the set up isn’t enticing enough to make us wonder more about the back story and there is nothing inherently mysterious about Johansson. She’s not an enigma we’re all debating and trying to figure out. She’s an actor who does well in some movies and less well in other movies. For the most part that’s fine, but it wasn’t enough here.
Winner: The Cat