'Under the Skin'
Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’ is a lot like those visually stunning, brain-tinglingly complex and deeply disturbing science fiction films that were all the rage in the 1970s until ‘Star Wars’ came along. It’s an art film that never feels like homework and proof that audacious and original work is still being made that blurs the line between arthouse and genre cinema.
The first and most important thing to note about ‘Under the Skin’ is that it’s a truly audacious movie. Director Jonathan Glazer nursed the project along for almost a decade since his last film, ‘Birth’. (He also directed the brilliant crime thriller ‘Sexy Beast‘.) The story is loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber about an alien being who comes to Earth and assumes the role of a beautiful woman in order to rather easily pick up men as part of a bizarre experiment. It’s an alien story about alienation, as our heroine struggles to figure out how the big messy game of humanity works. Glazer’s film follows the most basic beats of the concept, while finding all new ways to alienate and fascinate his viewers.
Scarlett Johansson stars as the alien in question. The scenes in which she drives around Glasgow picking up men were rather ingeniously shot on hidden cameras so that viewers are never certain whether they’re watching actors or civilians interacting with the star. When she catches her bait, she brings the men back to a mysterious house where the inside appears to be an endless room of darkness, and then pulls them into a black pool that sucks them up. The entire film is gorgeously shot and stylized by Glazer, but these sequences are on another level that creates an overwhelmingly intense atmosphere out of ingenious minimalism. The film splits most of the running time between these two types of sequences, but gradually the dazed Johansson tries to connect further with her foreign surroundings, only to always seem even more lost than her captives.
This is an experimental film to say the least, and a rather extraordinary one at times. The most obvious influence hanging over the project is Nicholas Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth‘. Glazer recreates the visual and narrative (or anti-narrative) audacity of Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi experiment in a style all his own. Johansson gives a chilly and effectively underplayed performance, while the mixture of non-actors and professionals suit their roles well.
At a certain point, Johansson’s character abandons her mission to find peace in a quiet country town while being pursued by an unnamed alien partner on a motorcycle. It’s only here, almost an hour into the movie, that a narrative starts to take shape. In a weird way, the last act frustratingly breaks the trance of the purely experimental first hour while also not offering enough narrative closure to bring the movie home in a comfortable and conventional manner. Something about the project doesn’t quite hang together, but thankfully that’s not nearly enough to kill the overall impact.
Glazer has created a truly original vision in ‘Under the Skin’. It’s a terrifying, evocative, intelligent and genre-bending cinematic experience that demands to be seen by anyone who enjoys off-kilter cult cinema. The fact that it never quite comes together as a whole is frustrating, but also somewhat of a genre staple for this brand of head-trip cinema. When Glazer fails in the film, he fails on his own singularly bizarre terms and produces something that’s still captivating. Perhaps the filmmaker spent a little too long over-thinking this project, but at least each individual idea and sequence offers something of interest that feels like no other movie.
Hopefully, Glazer won’t need another ten years to mount his next project. With only three features under his belt, the director is easily one of the most singular filmmaking voices working today.