When I first heard about Under the Skin, (Jonathan Glazer’s first film since Birth in 2004), it sounded like it might be an attempt to make an arty, highbrow hybrid drawn from the ideas behind two distinctly unsophisticated films. Firstly Roger Donaldson’s 1995 sci-fi horror schlock fest Species, an unashamed B-movie with a surprisingly impressive cast about an alien who comes to earth in the form of a hot woman to try and seduce human men. In the simplest of terms, that one sentence plot summary could be exactly applied to Under the Skin, yet their handling couldn’t be more different. Secondly, the comedy style of Sacha Baron Cohen, in which he approaches real people on the streets in character. Unaware that they’re becoming part of a movie, the filmmakers later have to obtain signed releases from their non-actors to include them in the film. I mention this as it’s the same technique Glazer has employed here, having his alien seductress (Scarlett Johansson) attempting to pick up unassuming guys on the streets of Glasgow filmed with hidden cameras.
I felt the need to bring up these two points at the start of this review because they’re both pieces of information that the film itself does not really give you, yet anyone who’s read any reviews will be aware of anyway, and Glazer’s been happy to discuss in promotional interviews. They’re also both facts that, after watching Under the Skin, I can’t help wonder how much this prior knowledge affected my viewing experience, and whether or not it would have been preferable not to know them.
We have no idea who Johansson’s character is or where she comes from. We first see her in a featureless, dimensionless brightly, lit white space where her shadowy nude form appears, stripping the clothes from the corpse of a woman we’ve just seen a man recover from a ditch. It’s unlike any familiar human environment, but there are no clues as to where it is.
Sporting black hair, bright red lipstick and a fur coat, Johansson looks suitably stunning in the part, at once recognisably the A-list movie star we know and yet different enough that bystanders could plausibly not recognise her. Her conversations with the locals (which some viewers might need subtitles to understand the thick Glaswegian inflections of) are realistic bouts of small talk, there’s nothing particularly interesting to the improvised dialogue, and I imagine it could have been just as effective if scripted. However this again brings up whether it was a positive or negative influence to know that these were unscripted scenes. There’s no discernable difference in visual or audio quality between shots to betray what’s a hidden camera and what’s not, so was it a good idea to leave audience members like me thinking about what was and what wasn’t ‘real’ in these scenes? I’m still not sure.
After she makes a successful pickup (which doesn’t seem too hard for her, she does look like Scarlett Johansson after all) she takes the men back to another featureless void, though completely black this time, where in quite astonishing sequences of sci-fi horror, the horny young men are swallowed up into an oily liquid to be consumed. There’s some unforgettable imagery on display in these scenes, but the film remains as opaque as its fluid murder weapon in explaining why this is happening.
There’s also a mysterious motorcycle riding man who we see occasionally throughout and know even less about. Is he another alien? I assume so but then is he assisting her? Supervising her? We never see them interact and can only speculate as to the dynamic of their relationship.
Motivations aside, we do gradually learn some things about Johansson’s character as we see Scotland through her eyes, Glazer turns an otherworldly gaze onto everything from shopping malls to cliff faces. In one intriguing and powerful scene at a beach, she exhibits little-to-no understanding of empathy. Indeed, considering that this film will almost certainly be analysed for its examination of gender roles, it’s not entirely clear if she is even aware of gender. She only targets men, but later examines herself in an apparent attempt to understand why they are attracted to her. She also shows no preference for targeting handsome men and in another memorable sequence picks up a man with the facial disfigurement of neurofibromatosis.
It’s this act that triggers changes in her, as she begins to appear increasingly curious about humans. The film manages to alter our attitudes toward her as is explores some ideas about humanity, and ultimately takes a very pessimistic view. The shocking finale is still playing over in my mind.
I didn’t think a great deal of either of Jonathan Glazer’s previous films, and while this features similar techniques, I think he’s found a story much better suited to him. Coming from a background in commercials and music videos, he has a very strong visual sense. Many of the shots here are stunning, both the constructed images of the alien lair and the natural ones of the highland landscape. It’s accompanied with an almost omnipresent score by Mica Levi that’s startlingly effective in its unconventionality. I’m not sure it’s a score I’d want to listen to by itself but the frightening discomfort it creates suits the film perfectly.
I maintain a certain hesitation towards films as wilfully inaccessible as Under the Skin is, and as beautiful as his visuals are, Glazer indulges in the frequent art film technique of often holding them for longer than is really necessary, as if trying to intentionally filter out any audience members with short attention spans.
Intellectual art film aspirations and science fiction horror rarely go hand in hand but Under the Skin is exactly that. It uses Scarlett Johansson in a way we never seen before, utilising her real-world reputation to reflect on how the men in the film view her character. It’s likely to put off a lot of people, and the filmmakers decision to be open in promoting the film but oblique within it remain questionable, but in the few days since I’ve seen it it’s really stuck with me as one of the most unique films we’re likely to see this year.