Under the Skin
Say what you like about Under the Skin (and it certainly isn’t for everybody), it at least has the courage of its convictions. In its daring attempt to mount an ambitious, abstract and experimental science fiction tale, it easily surpasses most other recent offerings in a genre now stuffed to the gills with comic-book adaptations; there’s probably been nothing as divisive or as elliptical since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But where that film spliced its genre elements with very human and spiritual dimensions, Under the Skin resolutely refuses to go any further than skin deep; the alien visitor, much like David Bowie’s outsider in The Man Who Fell to Earth (a distant relative of sorts), participates but doesn’t understand.
Following a series of abstract images - shapes and lights that may suggest planets and stars moving through the cosmos - we are introduced to Scarlett Johansson’s mysterious female. From the unsettling sounds of the random words she utters at the beginning, it becomes apparent that she is learning to navigate her new home. Thrust into the world (specifically Glasgow) by a mysterious guardian who rides around on a motorbike and keeps an eye on her from a distance, Johansson - literally dressed to kill in a fur coat and black hair - begins a campaign of connecting with, seducing and then obliquely destroying a series of apparently random men. What connects them is uncertain, as are her reasons for doing so. She reaches a turning point however, and disappears from the view of her protector.
It all sounds pretty straightforward from that plot description - think Species remade by Stanley Kubrick - but distilling that much takes time and patience. It’s never clear from one moment to the next what’s happening or why, which makes it both a challenging and rewarding watch. Director Jonathan Glazer has painstakingly broken down the basic mechanics of cinema and rebuilt them in a way that is designed to disorientate. Using composite images, security camera-style footage, empty sets, an otherworldly soundtrack (courtesy of Mica Levi) and a fragmented storyline, Glazer superbly creates a sense of what it might be like to be a first time visitor to planet Earth, to feel completely lost and alone in a strange and confusing world. Glasgow feels very much like the edge of the world here, wrapped in mist and gloom. Rarely has humanity seemed so odd and remote.
That feeling of alienation, of being the observer and the outsider, trumps everything else within the film; it is a sensory experience. After all, cinema have always been able to convey the perspective of the voyeur better than any other artform, examining its subject through the camera lens as we, the audience, look on (Hitchcock knew that better than anyone, of course). But therein also lies the film’s chief drawback. Its very aloofness prevents - with the notable exception of one utterly heartbreaking scene - any sort of emotional investment in what happens on screen. We see the world through Johansson’s eyes but feel little towards it. She is a blank slate. By being so deliberately cold and enigmatic, the conclusion feels quite anti-climactic. Questions naturally linger, but so too does a nagging frustration.
Criticising the film for what it does so successfully seems silly - it’s a joy to have thinking man’s science fiction back on the menu. It harks back to the late 1960s and 70s when films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX 1138 and Nicolas Roeg’s Bowie-starring opus dared to reinvent the genre and tackle big questions, and there is one terrific jump-out-of-your-seat moment - the closest the film gets to being a ‘conventional’ sci-fi horror. It may not be the stone cold classic some critics have hailed it as, but Under the Skin is still one of this century’s most imaginative films. Essential viewing.