In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart contextualized the term “I know it when I see it” in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio, stating that when it came to works of obscene media, “I know it when I see it.” I’d argue that this phrase works just as well at identifying works of genius. There’s no formula for works of genius. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is arguably one of the most well-known and agreed-upon works of genius in science fiction film. It’s one of those things that, upon first viewing, makes you open your mouth and gasp.

“Under The Skin,” Jonathan Glazer’s newest film, is not a work of genius, though it is incredibly well-done. It doesn’t have the (purely aesthetic) quality of perfection.

It is what some friends of mine would call “weird”.

‘Under the Skin’ is about an alien (portrayed by actress Scarlett Johansson) who preys on men in Scotland. In the film, there is no explanation for this.

Johansson has been in the movie-making business for a pretty long time.

What is incredibly ironic is that Johansson’s role in “Under The Skin” as an anonymous extraterrestrial is one of her most realistic and humanistic in a long time—her acting in this picture is arguably one of her most affecting since she co-starred with Bill Murray in 2003’s “Lost in Translation.”

As a whole though, the film is well-acted, directed, and shot, culminating in an experience that is viscerally powerful.

“Under The Skin” is far from perfect. As a film, it suffers from a lack of plot. Its overly ambiguous storyline gives some passing to the credibility of its characters. Under-contextualization leads to minimal character development in parts, and audience members are forced to grasp at straws in order to connect with Johansson’s character. This in turn forces us to think about the plot and draw parallels between the world of the film with our world.

Casting Johansson in ‘Under The Skin’ was by no means accidental, and actually affects how we look at the film. The film, which meditates on themes of exploitation, survival, and humanity, directly engages with this, putting Johansson’s character in front of either black or white screens during the climactic seduction/destruction scenes. One of the film’s first scenes consists of a naked Johansson in front of a white screen. The camera follows her body (in microscopic, close-up shots) as she convulses. She holds an ant, acting as its temporary queen.

In one pivotal scene about halfway through the film, Scarlett Johansson’s character connects with another character who could be classified, at least by some, as a monster. The audience never really looks at Johansson’s character as more than Johansson herself until this scene and the climax of the film. This sort of “identity divide” between actor and characters forces the audience to ask difficult questions about modern celebrity culture and, more specifically, who the monsters in our society really are.

It’s a sick, chilling moment when we, the audience, a group of voyeurs who derive satisfaction purely from watching, feel as though we are being watched. Glazer succeeds in this regard, and that is what truly makes “Under The Skin” so scary: we could be in it.

What one takes away from “Under The Skin” is not that oversexualized cultures are primitive and horrifying (though they are); instead, one realizes that if the camera and perspective can be so easily flipped on the audience, our society’s narrative is just as scary as the one onscreen.

It has sparks of brilliance, but those are weighed down by the lack of a script providing context. It is not perfect. It is not genius. However, it is a good film in that it will force you to think, and sometimes that is good enough.

Schaffer is a member of

the class of 2016.



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