Under The Skin is perhaps one of the more unusual cinema releases of the year so far. Part sci-fi, part horror, it features Scarlett Johansson as an un-named alien who ‘borrows’ the human body of a recently-deceased woman and travels around a bleak, rainy Glasgow in a white van, seducing men and harvesting their bodies. It is experimental, moody and leaves several key questions unanswered (most notably: ‘What the fuck is going on?’), but it is a striking work that confirms director Jonathan Glazer is one of the more provocative and interesting British filmmakers working today. Several wags have dubbed it the arthouse Species, and while the comparison is amusing, the brief plot outline is where the similarities between the two films end: this is Ridley Scott on bad acid, a movie that is dark, unsettling, thought-provoking, disorientating and memorable.
It opens with a minimalist, Kubrick-esque abstraction that purportedly signifies the alien’s birth, her re-birth or a journey to Earth, and the next hour of the film mainly consists of her driving around the city, striking up conversations with men as she passes through docklands, busy shopping streets and the roads around the Celtic Park stadium on match day. (In theory the alien is not gender-specific, but since it adopts a female form in the movie I’ll refer throughout this review to ‘her’ rather than ‘it’.) She seems to identify some of these men as worthy prey and ignores others, and the only criteria in terms of selection appears to be that they are single and (possibly) lonely. She has a slightly plummy (and commendably accurate) English accent and, dressed in fake fur, stonewashed jeans, black wig and with bright red lips, Johansson’s alluring alien takes on the appearance of a vintage-obsessed beauty: three parts 1950s to one part 1980s. She picks up most men after stopping to ask them for directions, and interestingly quite a few of these are not professional actors; Glazer and his team filmed real people with hidden cameras.
In one nightmarish scene, disturbing for all kinds of reasons, she beats a man with a rock before dragging him off to her van. Another guy is picked up in a nightclub. With each seduction or attack we are given a little more information as to what eventually happens to these victims: they are taken back to abandoned buildings by the alien and preserved in a kind of black, oily substance, a process that is shown in a fascinating, theatrical way by Glazer. There are no objects present in these scenes, just the alien and her prey, and most signifiers of scale and space are removed. It is pitch black, which suggests this might be taking place in another dimension; the victims follow the alien as she sheds her clothes and, enraptured, they slowly disappear into the goo as she eerily continues walking backwards without sinking.
Why she is repeatedly doing this is something the story never makes explicitly clear. Are they being harvested for food? For organs? For whose benefit? Is it an experiment? Why only single men? The mind wanders and, although it’s easy enough to draw your own conclusions, confirmations as to the whys and wherefores are few and far between. She is aided by a mysterious man on a motorbike (Jeremy McWilliams) who, it seems, is another alien; the two share some kind of psychic link, but their relationship is ambiguous. He appears at times to be a kind of ‘cleaner’, tidying up after the victims go missing, but could equally be a superior. Is she working for him, trapped in a cycle where she is forced to inhabit one body after another and repeat her task ad infinitum? Is this essentially some form of intergalactic pimp / prostitute relationship? It’s hard to tell: the adapted screenplay by Glazer and Walter Campbell dispenses with most of the information contained in Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, which is about food harvesting and does contain a boss / employee dynamic.
Eventually the alien begins to question her existence, showing compassion where previously there was no sign of it at all, and in the second half of the film she gradually tries to experience life as a human but becomes more and more awkward in her suit of flesh. Johannson has a necessary blank, detached expression for much of the movie, and this works well, but in the second half she telegraphs the alien’s growing sense of unease in the body superbly, and her inquisitive staring is quite affecting. The way that Glazer films her observation of mundane human activities such as walking, talking and eating is very interesting; in his hands these acts seem as culturally bizarre and out of place as anything unusual the alien does. In one blackly humorous scene, for example, the alien tries to eat a slice of cake, and it looks like it’s the most unnatural, unusual thing in the world anyone could possibly attempt to do.
Given the premise of a woman holding power over several men and eventually killing them, Under The Skin can be viewed as a pro-feminist work, but the relationship between the two aliens and the suggestion that the man wields the true power is troubling with respect to such a reading. At one point the male alien closely inspects the female alien’s body, presumably checking to see if she is still up to the task of attracting the single men of Glasgow, and he circles her in a way that makes her look as if she is nothing more than a piece of meat in his eyes. Perhaps Glazer is highlighting something here; he is not objectifying the main character in his film with this scene, but playing with the idea of objectification. (Other women rarely appear, although there is one scene in which Johansson’s alien gets caught up with a group of women on a night out. Not that it’s the be-all and end-all, but the film does fail the Bechdel Test.) Recent history has seen a number of high profile female pop stars marketed as strong, independent women, yet in truth they are expected to maintain a certain sexual allure and are often required to take off their clothes for music videos, dance suggestively etc. etc., usually with male directors, producers and record company executives and shareholders benefitting handsomely as the puppet masters. If they lose that sexual allure they are often consigned to the scrap heap, replaced by younger stars who are at the first stage of the entire process, and very few manage to experience any longevity within the industry. The same can be said for female actors, many of whom have long found parts harder to come by when they – and I don’t agree with the term – ‘lose their looks’. I’m not suggesting Under The Skin is specifically about all of this, but given Glazer’s history as a director of music videos there’s a slim chance this sexism within the entertainment industry is something he is addressing.
Without wishing to spoil anything, there are additional questions raised by the final act, and the way in which the female > male theme is brutally reversed by the end of the film. The last, haunting shot suggests the alien has achieved a sense of peace, oddly recalling Anton Corbijn’s poetic ending to the Ian Curtis biopic Control, but in order to get to this state she must endure something that can only be interpreted as a horrific punishment for her previous actions. Why did anyone feel the need to take the story in this direction? It would seem that a woman can only have this amount of power in a film if she is eventually stripped of it by a man.
Under The Skin is filmed in a gritty, realistic style, which makes for an interesting change from most science fiction. This is an alien story that is unconcerned with deep space, or threats to the President and The White House, or anything else that would serve to distance it from the here and now through exaggeration (yes, despite the scenes of black goo). The camera focuses mainly on mundane parts of Glasgow, and even when the plot takes in greener, leafier locations the rain seems to be relentless. It’s a million miles away from the adverts made by Visit Scotland, the national tourism organisation, but Glazer’s cold, dark take on the country suits the film to a tee. It’s certainly strange seeing an actor of Johansson’s fame and standing appear in an experimental work like this, especially when the locations are more likely to be seen in an episode of the TV series Taggart, but it’s a superb casting move and she deserves credit for taking on the role. (This is a point that has been made repeatedly elsewhere, but I would hasten to add that it’s a sad reflection on the conservative nature of many famous actors that a move such as this is so damn rare. Maybe the chance to appear in a movie like Under The Skin doesn’t come along too often, but I would suggest it’s more likely due to risk aversion within Hollywood generally. Why work with Glazer in rain-soaked Scotland when you can get some quirk on the CV via Wes Anderson or Tim Burton? I imagine their sets are far comfier than sitting in traffic in a white transit van for hours on end.) I should also mention at this point Mica Levi’s extraordinary soundtrack, which adds to the general eeriness and sense of displacement, whether scoring the otherworldly alien moments or the otherworldly Glaswegian moments (with apologies there to Mr Marakai – it’s a fine city!)
Glazer and Campbell went through several drafts of the screenplay, and the film had a long gestation period as a result; ironically – on the subject of gestation periods – it’s the director’s first since Birth, which came out roughly ten years ago. That movie, starring the equally progressive Nicole Kidman, received some scathing reviews but time has been kind and some well-respected critics have since suggested that it is a lost classic.
Birth and Under The Skin both premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and both received boos from the audience at the end, which I find bizarre; even after sitting through dross like Sharknado I rarely find myself insulted enough to actually heckle a blank screen, and Under The Skin is certainly no Sharknado. Glazer’s latest has gone on to polarize opinion, though, since that initial screening: some British newspaper critics have been riled by its pretentious leanings and have channeled their anger into knee-jerk reviews that call it an irritating mess, while others have remarked upon its bravery and the vision of the director, hailing it as a masterpiece. I’m leaning towards the latter, though I’m not sure such high praise is quite befitting. It is, though, a highly original science fiction / horror film with many striking images and a convincing dark, unusual atmosphere. Comparisons can often seem lazy but it’s little wonder that Glazer is currently being mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg.
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell, Michael Faber
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Running Time: 108 minutes