It’s been nearly ten years we last saw a film from Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer, and Under The Skin, a science fiction drama starring Scarlett Johansson that’s both chilly and inaccessible but beautifully made and utterly beguiling, reminds us how much we’ve missed him.
Johansson plays a nameless alien who takes the clothes from the corpse of her predecessor and sets off into the streets of Glasgow. As she drives around the city in a white van the parameters of her mission become clear. She approaches men, strikes up a conversation, establishes whether or not anyone will miss them, and takes them home, where they don’t get what they’re expecting. But how is all this contact with humanity affecting her?
The plot of Under The Skin (based on the novel by Michel Faber) is, taken at face value, the stuff of pulp sci-fi, and in the hands of another filmmaker this could quite easily have erred towards the softcore leering of films like Lifeforce or Species. While the plot is really quite straightforward, it’s Glazer’s treatment of the material that makes this such a fascinating piece. From the opening shots of Johansson’s eye being created as we hear her learn to form words, Glazer is clearly more interested in the sensory possibilities this story offers and the opportunity to show society from the point of view of the ultimate outsider.
The casting of Johansson inevitably led to a flurry of frantic predictions of nudity, but what this sweaty-palmed reaction overlooks is her growing talent as an actress. Not only is it an interesting decision for her – a million miles from the big budgets, bright colours and broad strokes of the Marvel universe – it’s quite possibly her strongest performances to date. The first half sees her effortlessly switch from detached to engaging; she gauges the behaviour of her prey and risks of the situation, adjusting her manner accordingly. The character is capable of shocking ruthlessness and surprising kindness, but how much of what we see is a smokescreen? It’s an instinctive, nuanced performance that becomes increasingly affecting as the film progresses; Johansson is superb.
It’s not exactly clear what the character has been sent to find or what she’s hoping to get from these eager men (although a sequence in which we find out what becomes of them is difficult to forget). There’s no opening monologue or discussion of her mission; in fact, there’s very little dialogue in the film at all. There’s a sly wit, but not much by way of levity. Much of the running time is made up of Johansson’s seemingly endless journey through the city, observing these people going about their lives, until something happens to send her spinning off course. She has a handler; a man on a motorbike who seems to be there to clean up any messes. He checks up on her by examining her eyes, and this serves as a reminder of what the film is really about.
As we observe this creature from another world, she is observing us. Glazer has a reputation for creating stunning visuals, and there are certainly many fantastically shot sequences. What is almost more impressive is the way the observational sequences combine with Johansson’s performance to gradually create a familiar world as seen by a character who is gradually altered by it. The more she sees, the more emotional Glazer’s film becomes until it builds to a moving crescendo.
Under The Skin isn’t the most accessible film. Long stretches pass by without any dialogue, it’s often unsettling and upsetting, easy answers are not forthcoming and it moves along at its own deliberate pace. It’s also surprisingly heartfelt, beautifully shot and utterly engrossing, with a fantastic central performance. It will almost certainly prove divisive, but this is a bold and challenging piece of science fiction.