Xavier Gens’ adaptation of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel of the same name leans heavily, to its detriment, on a Man Versus Man conflict that never quite pays off
On its surface, Cold Skin takes the Man Versus Nature narrative conflict to an extreme, as a young weather researcher at a remote island outpost discovers that surviving his yearlong assignment will require battling hordes of amphibious humanoids that emerge from the sea at night. But ultimately, Xavier Gens’ adaptation of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel of the same name leans heavily, to its detriment, on a Man Versus Man conflict that never quite pays off.
After enduring a night of unexpected aquatic visitors ransacking his island shack, the nameless young researcher (David Oakes), turns to the only other human on the small, Antarctic Circle island: the grizzled and slightly mad Gruner (Ray Stevenson), who’s holed up in a lighthouse. Gruner hesitantly allows the young man to stay in the lighthouse, a perch from which the two of them can lay waste to the frogmen by the dozens, in exchange for such creature comforts as coffee and chocolate, along with some extra ammo. Gruner also keeps a domesticated female humanoid (Aura Garrido) as a “mascot,” which he treats like both a pet and love-slave. But the young researcher begins to make a more profound connection with Gruner’s creature, discovering that this previously unknown species—which the film’s 1914 setting makes easier to believe could’ve existed undetected in some remote part of the ocean—may possess more humanity than your average sea monster.
The frequent sieges by the creatures, which Gruner often beckons by shooting flares into the air when he’s ready to tangle with them, provide Cold Skin with ample action but limited gore. Gens doesn’t focus on the carnage, which becomes problematic when the jagged shore surrounding the lighthouse remains virtually clear of amphibian carrion despite the two men slaughtering them en masse each night. The film gets sidetracked in various schemes that the pair cook up to protect themselves, including using some old diving equipment to retrieve explosives from a nearby shipwreck. We see Gruner grow jealous as he watches the young man and the mascot spending more time together, but ultimately the conflict between the two men feels forced. It’s unclear what their motivations are, as the film tries to become more than just a story of survival. But it does so aimlessly while straining credulity: Their interpersonal conflict feels more melodramatic than their desperate circumstances would allow.
Though the creature design isn’t particularly compelling, and some of the fight sequences rely too heavily on unimaginative CGI, Cold Skin’s austere setting is beautifully shot. But the film never conjures the same sense of desperation that ripples through Piñol’s novel, and without much character background for either man, its tension stems almost entirely from physical threats rather than psychological ones. Though Cold Skin opens with a Nietzsche quote cautioning that men who fight monsters must be wary of becoming monsters themselves, this message feels shoehorned into a plot that’s really just about a couple of guys fighting frog-people, their characters never fully fleshed out.