Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan
Running Time: 108 min
Plot: A predatory alien in human guise, Laura (Johannson) roams Scotland harvesting the souls of vulnerable men by seducing and then disposing of them.
To steal the words of an unwittingly-close-to- death Edinburger in Under the Skin, this film is ‘pure hard to explain’. Jonathan Glazer’s metaphysical thriller flies in the face of sci-fi convention, and -unless you see it in the pit that is Manchester’s Cornerhouse Screen 3 – each and every frame is iconic; considering the subject matter, this startling attractiveness is both laudable and disconcerting.
If Avatar/Pocahontas’ plot was reworked by an English arthouse guru, the end result would probably resemble Under the Skin. Laura is a mysterious creature from another world bent on reaping the body matter of hapless male hitch-hikers. During the eye watering opening segment, she reconstructs herself to resemble a softly spoken human that looks like Scarlett Johansson. She drives about the Scottish countryside in a big white van, picking up potential male victims and luring them to their vacuous deaths. While at first she appears eerily devoid of emotion, she slowly embarks on a process of humanisation which forces her to doubt her duties. To prevent Laura from going native, her wordless (m)alien (male alien) counterpart skids in on his motorbike to get her back on human-harvesting track.
Scarlett Johansson totally reinvents herself as the preening predator, absolutely nailing the English accent and gliding with an ethereally removed grace through the drab mass known as society. Aside from a handful of paid actors, many of Scarlett’s close encounters are with real civilians she has just picked up off the street – with cameras in the roof, speedometer and refitted dashboard, all the unfurnished action is captured without their knowledge (they were told later) as Glazer and crew nest in the back of the van. ‘Didn’t they recognise her, though?’ To answer the question that’s undoubtedly on your mind, apparently not. Apart from one time. But that isn’t in the film.
Auteur is a term oft overused, but in relation to Jonathan Glazer it feels appropriate. Like Nicolas Winding Refn or Kubirck before him, every shot is pre-planned to perfection – he even seems to be in control of the elements. Under the Skin is only Glazer’s third feature film, and his first for nine years. He’s much more at home making snazzy commercials for Guinness or shooting music videos for Jamiroquai and Massive Attack, and his experience in the latter field really feeds well into Under the Skin, in which the thumping, screeching score is timed perfectly with Scarlett’s every move.
Under the Skin is a chilling inquisition into the purpose of humanity; humanity as a product, humanity as a resource, humanity as – from this new and alien perspective, at least – something inherently bad. There are a few rough changes in pace, but Under the Skin is original, challenging cinema and worth checking out on a big screen.