In recent years, movies like Moon, Her and Another Earth have shown audiences that great sci-fi can be subtle, thought-provoking and under budget. Under The Skin pushes this trend forward — proof positive that big bucks, gore or even a spaceship aren’t necessary for an alien invasion.
Scarlett Johansson (the only major billing) plays a semi-mute alien that uses the actress’s sexuality to seduce men and relieve them of their skin. An extended opening shot of the formation of an iris — eyeballs play a motif throughout — coupled with an erratic and startling score, will remind Kubrick fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey. If Kubrick directed a hybrid between Drive and Species, Under The Skin might be it.
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Stalking men in Glasgow, Scotland, Johansson’s character seems to operate off CliffNotes on the manual for human conversation, making her dialogue and reactions unnerving, as if she were just going through the motions. Her sentences have the wrong emphasis, her face the wrong expression. This makes encounters with others on screen, many of whom were unaware they were being filmed, all the more revealing. On a camera hidden in the back of a van, the oblivious Scots are captured interacting with Johansson, who they don’t recognize as an actress (they were inevitably informed of the film afterward). The juxtaposition of candid footage and scripted scenes blurs the lines that define a feature film and makes Under The Skin‘s interactions both dull and enthrallingly real.
The mixture reflects of the movie as a whole. Instead of high budget CGI, Director Jonathan Glazer maintains realism in an alien invasion by inching the film along, albeit beautifully, on personal interplay and shots of Johansson staring off into the distance, contemplating unvoiced thoughts (and probably trying forget about the scrawny dude who danced, naked and fully erect, into the black goo that makes up her bedroom floor). Dialogue is forced and awkward, especially when Johansson is literally picking random guys up off the street. The moments are far from what we’d expect to see on the big screen, but close to what we see in daily life. In its efforts to seduce men, the alien scripts human sexuality, relying upon physical beauty and directness over personality and conversation. Watching the victims ignore Johansson’s alien qualities in order sleep with her/it, Glazer throws any of the audience member’s judgement back in their face, forcing a confrontation with their own lust for the beautiful lead.
This move was calculated by Glazer. He spent almost a decade developing the mood and script, which capture bleak and severe shots of the Scottish coastline. Johansson shivers in the wind, out of place among town-homes in every shade of grey, wondering why she’s there. Motivation for alien aggression is usually obvious: their home planet’s resources are depleted, they want to explore our insides, they’re constructing a transgalactic highway and we’re in the way. In Under The Skin, Johansson’s plan is never understood, and reliably existential. This sci-fi movie will draw you in, but isn’t there to entertain — a standout in an era of filmmaking reliant on sequels and well tested formulae.
After the last skyward shot faded and the credits rolled, I walked past whispers of “I didn’t get it”, “I loved it” and “I hated it”. Glazer’s Under The Skin isn’t a movie for closure or even much of a plot. It’s about humanity, desire and sympathy. It’s at times boring and uncomfortable, but always beautiful and portraying life truly, in all its shit-stained bleakness. Afterward, at the bar with my friends, we discussed what unfolded onscreen until last call, which is the most anyone could ask of a film, and certainly more than you’d get from an Avengers sequel.