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TIFF Review: 'Under the Skin' Doesn't Go Deep Enough

09/14/2013 10:28 EDT | Updated 11/14/2013 05:12 EST

At the outset of the festival, there were few movies I was more excited to see than Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, adapted from Michael Faber's excellent science fiction novel. This was a book that had kept me up late into the night, riveted to the gorgeous, terrifyingly rendered tale of a conflicted alien who, wearing human skin, drives around northern Scotland capturing single men and eviscerating them.

Under the Skin is simply a brilliant, complex novel, awash in metaphor and allegory, concerned with high philosophy (what does it mean to be human?) as much as it is with ground-level gender politics and sexuality. (There is even a sly subplot about the ethics of factory farming, a la Soylent Green.) An irresistible bit of science fiction, Faber's novel could have made for a memorable, thoughtful thriller. It could have been Species, for grown ups.

Unfortunately, that's not exactly what Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) has offered us.

In the celebrated director's exceedingly slow-paced, plot-free, darkly-lit vision, the alien (played by Scarlett Johansson) is impressively seductive, but frustratingly opaque. In place of story and context we are presented with a series of somewhat repetitive vignettes -- for the first two thirds of the movie we watch Johansson's alien pick up, and then kill (in impressively beautiful, dreamy fashion) a series of men, culminating in a fellow with severe deformities of the face and skull.

The old trope of the murdering seductress, the black widow, hangs over the proceedings, but is never outright addressed. S/he is not acting out of malice, or in the interest of revenge; in fact, we never find out why s/he's doing it. Meanwhile, these men go willingly to their surreal fate, their erect penises leading them towards the nude, receding figure of Johansson. Flies to honey. Is this a commentary on the male weakness for sex? A feminist fantasy of empowerment? Glazer may want us to say yes, but frankly, he's asking us to stretch too far to get there.

Whereas in Faber's novel we are invited into the alien's mind, given the opportunity to understand what s/he is doing on Earth, and why s/he is roaming the barren, rain-swept Highlands in search of men to kill, the closest we get to such insight in this film is a series of lengthy shots in which Johansson stares at herself in mirrors, sometimes naked. Who am I?, s/he asks (perhaps). Or is it that s/he is coming to enjoy life in this foreign skin? As s/he begins to explore life as a human in the final third (s/he attempts eating human food and having sex with a man) the film gets interesting, and seems to be leading us somewhere. But this feeling is short-lived. Finally, Under the Skin leaves everything up in the air.

Surely, film adaptations do not need to be faithful. And Glazer's re-imagining of the basic premise of the novel is in some ways deeply impressive. The naturalism of the hidden camera-driven Glasgow scenes is eerie and effective, while the harrowing, horrific sequence on a windswept beach on the North Sea will haunt me for a long while to come. But, overall this vague and often tedious picture will leave many newcomers to the material confused, and fans of the novel irritated.

TIFF 2013 Red Carpet