Under the Skin

The human body is a ravishing enigma in Under the Skin (2013)—a landscape concealing a vast multitude of secrets. The kind of sci-fi film that uses the possibility of alien life to question the essence of our own, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature churns along on its overpowering audio-visual wavelength, intimating a story of death and alienation through foreboding, cryptic poetry. A cosmic opening resembles 2001’s “Star Gate” sequence and a number of swooping tracking shots bring The Shining to mind, but with his haunting, visceral austerity, Glazer refutes any accusations that he’s just another Kubrick imitator—proving instead that he’s one of this generation’s most exciting and commanding filmmakers.

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Producers: Nick Wechsler, James Wilson
Writers: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Faber (based on the novel by)
Cinematography: Daniel Landin
Editor: Paul Watts
Music: Mica Levi
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman

Runtime: 108 minutes
Countries of Origin: UK/Switzerland
Premiere: August 29, 2013 (Telluride Film Festival)
US Release: April 4, 2014

Although Glazer’s stylistic and thematic interests can be traced back to the music videos he directed early in his career (including Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”), Under the Skin follows in the footsteps of his first two features, the crime-gone-awry oddity Sexy Beast (2000) and the elegiac Birth (2004). If the first was profane and sometimes hyperkinetic, Birth was its opposite extreme—a quiet, melancholy chiller about a widow’s former husband reincarnated in a 10-year-old boy. Aside from their magisterial command of film form, the two films share a manipulation of genre structures—the heist flick in one, the gothic ghost story in the other—in order to question human nature and metaphysical riddles like fate and undying love.

Glazer pushes his fondness for quizzical storylines, meticulous form, and stark existentialism to its astounding breaking point in Under the Skin, adapted from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel. In the book, an alien named Isserley lures hitchhikers to their doom in northern Scotland, returning them to her big-business employers on her home planet, where human meat is considered a delicacy. For his adaptation, Glazer and his co-screenwriter Walter Campbell embrace the possibilities of cinema (and avoid its limitations) by merely suggesting this bizarre storyline and its allegorical subtexts through ominous glimmers of plot and characterization. 

The film is hypnotic from its opening images: accompanied by a spare musical score (provided by Mica Levi, and composed almost solely of shrieking strings and a lurching drum beat), a single speck of light explodes from the center of the frame. The dot of light becomes a planet, drifting into the silky-black cosmos; an eclipse brings to mind the planetary alignment that signals the arrival of the monolith in 2001, though the entity being announced in this case takes on the personified form of Scarlett Johansson. We first encounter her in a luminescent warehouse, donning the clothes (and mimicking the glamorous appearance) of a prostrate female body. These opening images, devoid of dialogue, rush at us with the vivid immediacy of a dream; already, the film feels special, the kind of confounding experience that only arrives every once in a while.

Though her motivations remain obscure, Johansson’s unnamed alien proceeds to roam the streets of Scotland in search of unwitting men to seduce. There’s no pleasure in her pursuit, not even a gloating superiority over the men who fall into her trap—merely the obligation of a being carrying out a mandatory task. The editing in these early scenes, as she and her victims share rambling conversations in the front seat of her van, is fractious and disorienting, almost never featuring two characters in the same frame—emphasizing the lack of human connection in the exchange, at least from her perspective. Glazer has revealed that many of these scenes were filmed with hidden cameras and oblivious male passersby, even inventing a new device for filming in the front of a moving vehicle; the jangly naturalism of these scenes makes the men’s imminent doom surprisingly effective, a sense of intimate peril that prevents the film from becoming overly detached.

Glazer balances the rawness of these moments with a precise, awe-inspiring formal ingenuity. The scenes in which the alien brings her victims to what appears to be an abandoned warehouse covered in pits of jet-black oil might be the most jaw-dropping experiences you’ll have watching a movie this year: as she undresses and struts across the reflective surface, the naked men follow her, fully erect and driven only by lust, unaware that they’re sinking deeper into the abyss. Under the Skin teasingly resists showing us what fate the men encounter—at least until we’re suddenly submerged in the amniotic blackness with one of them. This sequence employs the staggering abstractions of experimental filmmaking even more brazenly than The Tree of Life (Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films are especially prominent avant-garde influences).

The alien’s initial victims are, if not worthless creeps, at least laughably willing to follow this gorgeous creature wherever she leads them for the promise of sex. Wowed by her surface beauty, they are mostly indifferent to who she actually is. The film functions partly as a critique of a sex-obsessed, skin-deep culture, and of male sexual entitlement in particular; at times the alien is an avenging angel, turning the men’s shallow carnality against them. Under the Skin can conceivably be read as a broad, metaphorical comment on gender inequality and sexual violence, as evidenced by reviews that have deemed the film an attempt to displace rape culture onto male viewers, instilling an uneasy sense of sexual endangerment.

But the entire point of the film, as the title suggests, is that nothing in human nature is so simple—it’s what’s under the skin that defines us rather than our physical appearance. The theme may sound trite, but explored through Johansson’s mercurial performance and Glazer’s evocative style, it takes on real existential resonance—a rumination on the intermingling of behavior and perception. If we could somehow rip off our flesh and expose the creature inside, what would we see? (And would it look at all like the alien’s black, impassive endoskeleton in Under the Skin?) 

Johansson’s character comes to realize this as the film charts a path from icy terror to mournful empathy. At first, she is an absolutely heartless creature: she watches as a dog, then its two human owners, drown in the choppy waves of a tempestuous ocean, then cruelly bludgeons the only survivor and absconds with his body. (She leaves the married couple’s infant son wailing alone on the beach.) She shows no more compassion when she lures her next two victims to their doom. Her conviction falters, however, when she picks up a man (seemingly against his better judgment) who turns out to be afflicted with neurofibromatosis—the same ailment that disfigured “the Elephant Man.” Kind and lonely, made insular by his physical imperfections, he agrees to accompany her not out of lust, but a desire for human connection. Like most of the other men in the film, he was played by a non-actor afflicted with neurofibromatosis in real life (Adam Pearson), lending great poignancy to the character’s vulnerability. The alien succeeds in enticing him to her lair but, startled by the recognition that there’s something to humans beyond their outward skin, allows him to escape. It’s a touching scene, removed of all sentimentality by Glazer’s spare aesthetic—the moment in which the alien elects to be part of this earthbound world—but it’s also the beginning of her destruction.

Her next relationship is even more intimate: now pursued by interplanetary overseers for letting her prey survive, she accepts shelter from a shy loner. The guy is so gentlemanly he picks her up and carries her across a muddy puddle—a welcome moment of tongue-in-cheek humor. If he comes to her aid with the hope of sex in return, he never lets it affect his chivalrous behavior. While Under the Skin is mostly solemn and frigid, this relationship tethers the film to compelling human emotion, providing a glimmer of hope at the center. But her brief time on this planet is ill-fated from the start: her attempts to make love with this man (for the first time with a human) end disastrously, and an unforgettable climax proves to her the cruelty of which men are capable. The final image completes a brilliant, devastating cycle: matter returning to a cosmic plane beyond our own, fleetingly a part of this world but ultimately a victim of it.

Earth ultimately has a tragic fate in store for her, but our planet had once seemed so alluring. Earlier documentary images of real Glasgow residents astound the alien in their eclecticism and vibrancy: she raptly observes a multitude of unique faces, interactions, impromptu street performances, the innumerable oddities to be discovered in the city. Making use of Johansson’s subtle expressivity and Daniel Landin’s masterful cinematography, Under the Skin is able to convey the dizzying newness of life on Earth as perceived through alien eyes; it’s like seeing our world all over again for the first time. The film’s tone is stark and unsettling, but it’s a testament to its thematic complexity that our existence is portrayed not as a dreary slog, but as an explosive experience capable of rare moments of joy and beauty.

A shimmering riddle that’s a thrill to unpack, Under the Skin is simple on the surface (its minimal dialogue, comprising a small fraction of the entire film, is a particular pleasure) yet opens into new interpretations and meanings the further you delve into it. Hurtling along on its singular sensory rush, it’s a masterpiece of suggestion and circumscription, merely scratching at unanswerable questions. With Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer lures us into gorgeously bleak terrain not unlike the glistening abyss in which the alien suspends her prey; it’s a spellbinding, terrible place to be.

by Matthew Cole Levine

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