SOON to be released on DVD, the sense of lurking paranoia that dwells at the frozen heart of Under the Skin makes itself known in every scene. It’s a film where reality is rendered mutable; where human interaction is stark and emotionally dissonant; where sexuality is both abhorrent and beautiful. Jonathan Glazer’s alien body horror, adapted from Michael Faber’s surrealist novel, shares the same basic premise as schlockier sci-fi fare like Species but explores it in a more detached, cerebral vein. This isn’t your common slasher by any stretch, though it certainly sounds it on paper.
Scarlett Johansson plays a nameless alien who, upon landing in the Scottish Highlands, proceeds to seduce unwitting men from the seat of a Ford Transit and harvest their flesh. The gruesome depiction of this ‘harvesting’ is one of the most disturbing scenes in any horror film of the past decade; suspended in black liquid, the unfortunate victim is sucked right out of his skin, the remains of his flesh floating in the ooze.
The sound design relies heavily on diegesis, with roving stabs of urban noise and Glaswegian accents punctuated by the engine throb of Johansson’s white van. When Mica Levi’s Driven score does kick in at key points, we’re assaulted by shrill, atonal floods of strings that threaten to overwhelm our ears. There are similarities to the howling score of 2001: A Space Odyssey; certainly, the visual style bears Kubrickian hallmarks, but Glazer is aiming for a different mark.
Rather than the mysteries of the universe and humanity’s place in it, Glazer is examining humanity’s perception of itself. Johansson is often framed in the vicinity of a reflective surface; the facility in which the harvesting takes place, for instance, is a dimensionless void with a mirror-floor, Johansson doubled. Elsewhere, she examines her naked body in a (regular) mirror with glazed uncertainty. In almost every scene there’s some sort of self-examination occurring, whether consciously or not.
Beyond the similarities to 2001 and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Under the Skin is most stylistically and performatively indebted to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie as a strange alien masquerading as a man (so playing himself then). Johansson channels Bowie’s glacial unapproachability as she stares unblinking at the Glaswegian night, clumsily chatting up her victims with a clipped English accent and a cast-iron blankface.
These attempts to communicate with her hapless prey – some of whom were unaware they were being filmed with hidden cameras – are quite uncomfortable to watch, especially when we are made aware of what lies in store for them. The line between professional actors and bystanders is so blurred at times it’s indistinguishable, such is the naturalism of the dialogue; or, at least when there actually is dialogue. The casting of Johansson is a stroke of genius in this regard; a Hollywood starlet interacting with random, unaware Scots adds an additional touch of the surreal to the film.
On the acting side of things it falls to Johansson to carry the film and she excels, conveying icy standoffishness with frightening ease. It is through her alien eyes that we watch a family disaster unfold on a beach, and it is through her uncomprehending observation that we as an audience reel. Until she begins to feel the first onset of empathy – prompted by meeting a nervous young man (Adam Pearson) with neurofibromatosis – she is cold, clinical and terrifying.
Through Johansson, we are exposed to men of various shapes and sizes, from the laddish nightclub playboy to the concerned guardian to the Czechoslovakian surfer; all, without exception, are prey. The virginal and the amorous receive the same fate. Here’s the problem. Though we can surmise that a reversal of the male gaze and some kind of anterior commentary on human sexuality is taking place, we are left unsure as to what we’re supposed to be grasping.
Perhaps the intention is one of simple presentation over active examination, but the only question I was left asking was wondering what exactly the film is trying to say. Perhaps the extent to which Johansson is in various states of undress while in the vicinity of reflective surfaces is a dead giveaway concerning commodification of – and anxieties behind – the female form… or maybe not. There’s nothing wrong with a film raising more questions than answers, but when it seems to be addressing issues as fascinating and psychologically complex as these, a little transparency would have been welcome.
Still, Glazer’s ambition can’t be faulted and the confidence with which he showcases it is impressive. The real star of the show, even outshining Johansson, is the cinematography. The film’s sheer visual virtuosity manages to compensate for its threadbare plot, with much of the film’s meaning conveyed through imagery: A frightened Johansson alone in the midst of looming woodland; extended close-ups of eyeballs flickering; motorcycles roaring down empty Highland roads. This sense of total alienation has rarely been captured so vividly.
Bold, dark and beautiful, Under the Skin is a daring film that’s ultimately weighed down by the obscurity of its message. While its imagery and Johansson’s central performance are both remarkable, we are left uncertain about what to think and what to feel. Though relatively short at 96 minutes, its portentous pace can sometimes be a drag. We’re left feeling as empty and cold as the alien herself, and you can’t really get excited about that.