Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is a study in abstract filmmaking. Like many films before, it explores a crisis of identity when an alien arrives on earth, but its clash of earthly and otherworldly elements is stunningly mastered.
The alien in question takes the form of Scarlett Johansson, in an extraordinarily detached performance that ranges from blank and robotic to coquettish and flirtatious, with only a handful of clipped lines to offer the merest hint of human life. Cutting a lonely figure, she cruises the streets of Glasgow in a black van like a siren, seducing men for some sort of bizarre act (many of which were secretly filmed as real life encounters, a Hollywood star as much an alien in this environment as, well, an alien). This is far from the campy sexuality of Species however. Early on she reveals a complete lack of morals as she blankly witnesses a family drowning in the sea; later she takes pity on a disfigured man and becomes almost obsessively curious about her own human body. Just as she questions her humanity, the audience will question her motives – our reactions evolving from disgust to empathy. What exactly happens to these men once she’s lured them into a black void? And who is the mysterious motorcyclist seemingly aiding her mission? That would be telling, but it’s almost best not to know – not only is it horrific, but much of the film’s appeal comes from deciphering its many unanswered questions.
Through Glazer’s cinematography, Glasgow is depicted as a cold and dismal modern day dystopia of rain-soaked grey streets and freezing highlands, stark realism juxtaposed with science-fiction. The film’s pacing is ponderous, each new act teasing us with a new nugget of narrative. It also bears some resemblance to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives in its nightmarish qualities. The striking visuals swing from abstract montage-esque imagery, to a neon-lit noir-ish urban hell – the tension between the extra-terrestrial and the human is wonderfully surmised in the kaleidoscopic opening that certainly owes a debt to Stanley Kubrick. The strange sound design (when not the silence of oblivion) uses a score from Mica Levi that combines distorted electronic effects and a seductive string motif. The total effect lulls the audience into a trance-like state, sucking you deeper into the hypnotic narrative.
Glazer’s film is a fusion of science-fiction and body horror that’s mesmerising, disturbing and intensely erotic. Like the encounters with Johansson’s alien, the film seduces you and leaves its strange rhythms to truly creep under the skin.