Mr East Goes To The Movies 2014: Under The Skin

by George_East on June 28, 2014

It’s been a while since I posted a film review and I am as ever absurdly behind in posting reviews of the new releases I have seen this year.  However, I still haven’t given up on my plan to post a review for every new release I see this year.  Under The Skin is the only new release I have seen twice.

Director Jonathan Glazer is probably best known for his superb blackly comic gangster film from 2000, Sexy Beast (Ray Winstone’s finest screen performance?).    However good that film is and it is very good, it cannot prepare you for the startling originality and power of Under The Skin – in my view one of the most original Sci Fi films of the last couple of decades.

The film based on a Michel Faber novel of the same title (which I confess I haven’t read) focuses on an unnamed alien played by Scarlett Johansson, who in the form of a human female cruises the streets of Glasgow picking up men as victims.  It is not entirely clear for what purpose – whether it is for food or for experimentation or for some other reason.   In the course of doing so she will begin to feel empathy, which will ultimately be her undoing.  At least that is what I think is going on.

The film opens to the sounds of syllables being articulated by a woman – the alien learning how to speak English (Glazer used recordings of Johansson’s English accent dialogue coaching  sessions) as the camera closes in on an eye ball.  The screen goes blindingly white.  A motorcyclist collects a body from the side of the road.  Then a cut to a naked woman taking the clothes from the body in an otherwise wholly white space – a woman who we soon realise to be Scarlett Johansson.

The film piles on layers and layers of alien-ness.  An English woman driving a van on her own picks up men around the rougher parts of Glasgow (some of this was apparently shot for real).  Yet that English woman is Hollywood movie star Scarlett Johansson.  The film is shot through her eyes, everything is equally strange or equally normally from the perspective of an alien – whether that is a football crowd leaving Celtic Park she drives through, the shopping crowds in the centre of the city, a Tommy Cooper DVD or a man selling roses at traffic lights.  The superbly dissonant sound track of synthesisers and strings by Mica Levi adds to the distancing effect.

Her lack of humanity is emphasised in a wonderfully realised scene of a family on a beach who try to rescue their dog but end up both being swept away leaving their toddler on the beach on his own.   The alien does not even appear to notice the child is there –  we will later discover from a radio report that it too is missing.

By placing Scarlett Johansson in the position of predator in the van picking up young men, the usual sexual power structures of films and society are reversed.  She remains in control throughout, it is the men who provide her with the fodder she needs, as she entices them into a derelict house (one at least looks twice before entering) and thence to their deaths, drowning in a thick black liquid as they try to reach an undressing alien.

The film raises questions as to what it means to be human and to become human. Is it when she notices that she bleeds from the thorns on the rose, is it when the facially disfigured man she picks up (played superbly by Adam Pearson who suffers from neurofibromatosis a condition which causes multiple tumours to grow on the face), who she does see as any different to the other men, affects her in a way that means she lets him go or is it when she finds herself tapping her fingers along to Deacon Blue on the radio?   As she discovers some humanity though, she also becomes vulnerable – ultimately the predator will become the prey.

Under The Skin has minimal dialogue, an avant grade score,  only the loosest of narratives and more things to talk and think about in it than pretty much the entire current output of mainstream Hollywood.  It is the kind of film that you will want to revisit time and time again.   A great piece of intelligent Sci Fi.  Indeed a classic in the making.  Johansson is to be applauded for taking such a brave role and for playing brilliantly.  I would not have thought that Glazer had it in him – and that is speaking as a fan of his.


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