Under the Skin



directed by Jonathan Glazer

The Female of the Species

Many tales have been told of how Jonathan Glazer’s third feature film has cast a spell on its viewers, they have experienced a sense of paralysis as they watched the cinema screen filled with sensual and sensory images, bewitched by the actions and conflicts presented in the film. I too appear to have fallen under its spell without completely understanding what I have just seen, and perhaps this is the best way, to not fully understand but instead experience a film that wholly represents its title.

Under the Skin has a minimal narrative, its primary plot involves Scarlett Johansson as an alien deployed to Glasgow, under the guise of an attractive young woman who combs the city streets for men to lure back to a house which transforms into an entirely black, stark surrounding. As they are seduced by Johansson’s alien, they become submerged into a pool of strange fluid where their bodies are to be harvested. What on paper sounds like the makings for a terrible B movie, in the hands of Glazer is a thrillingly original sci-fi art film that excites, intrigues but also horrifies.

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The opening scene, which has suitably compared to the work of Kubrick, sees a collection of abstract images that appear to be the evolving of something, a creation coming to life accompanied by a disturbingly menacing score that sets the tone for what is to come. The scene then shifts to a motorcyclist who retrieves the body of a woman by the roadside in Scotland, he is a kind of alien accomplice to Johansson’s newly formed alien who disrobes the woman to take on her identity. From there on, she sets out on her mission, scouring Glasgow looking for her prey, detached from human emotion, she is able to pick of her victims with seeming ease, a routine that is scored with agonising tension and glacial pacing. After a succession of encounters/missions, Johansson’s alien meets a heavily disfigured man who sets in motion her evolution into developing a sense of feeling and it is then that the hunter becomes the hunted and questions of our own humanity are thrown into disrepute.
Beating to the sound of its own bewildering drum, it is bold disturbing cinema that builds a mesmerising atmosphere, aided by a sublimely eerie soundtrack by Mica Levi. One scene involving a tragedy on the Scottish beach that the alien witnesses is so meticulously composed that it is used to heartbreaking visceral effect. Another scene revealing what happens to the men once they are immersed in the alien liquid is truly alarming that it makes the viewer worryingly uncomfortable in their own body. For a film to be both intoxicating and devastatingly cruel at the same time is no mean feat but Glazer pulls it off with masterful skill.

Under the Skin is a film that will, and has, divided audiences, from the split reception it received at the Venice film festival (half the audience booed, the other half applauded) to the wildly differing reviews it has received in print. I initially thought it was a film that would annoy me, not least because I have felt that Scarlett Johansson has failed to showcase her acting promise she originally displayed in Lost in Translation and has appeared pouty and as an over sexualised object in a run of mainstream Hollywood movies. Yet in this film she is a triumph, her emotionless alien is a compelling creature, her beauty this time is used to beguiling effect, her star quality enhances the sense of her alien being as seeing the actress walking around Glasgow high street seems effectively displaced.

Anyone who has seen Glazer’s earlier work, from his commercials to his music videos, for artists such as Radiohead, Jamiroquai and Blur, will know that he has a striking eye for statement visuals and haunting imagery. Glazer had also made the successful leap to film director with his previous two features, the modern classic Sexy Beast (2000) and the beautiful but underrated Birth (2004), however with his third film, he has progressed to a new level of distinctive imaginative cinema. He has created an electrifying addition to the pantheon of sci-fi films, one whose subject ends up making us feel alien after all.