Written by: Michael Faber (novel), Walter Campbell (screenplay), Jonathan Glazer (screenplay)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, and Lynsey Taylor Mackay
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"People wind me up."
With his liberal adaptation of Michael Faber’s Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer has crafted a fascinating take on extraterrestrial horror by capturing how terrifying it must be for the alien to land on a strange planet. He accomplishes this by essentially making aliens out of the audience, who are firmly placed at a distance from the proceedings throughout. The prologue is essentially without dialogue, save for a bizarre, repeated attempt at word formations by a mostly unseen character: we pull in close on an eyeball that forms out of a black void but quickly cut to the title card, so the sequence doubles as a prelude for the film’s enigmatic posturing.
I call it a posture because the film isn’t that oblique—it’s more elliptical in terms of motivations and details than it is completely mystifying. Its first half hour or so certainly tries its best to confound, as it follows a shadowy woman’s (Scarlett Johansson) travels through Scotland, where she picks up random men, particularly those with no jobs or family members who will miss them. After some (mostly improvised on-set) chit-chat, she leads them back to her apartment, an extraterrestrial chic abode teeming with a mysterious black liquid that consumes her entranced victims (seriously, they walk into this stuff with a full-on boner, unable to avert their eyes from her hypnotic striptease).
Glazer repeats this process, the details of which become increasingly confounding the more we see it. The fates of the unnamed woman’s victims—or at least their innards—are only partially illuminated: it’s clear that this is part of some process involving a male superior who rides a motorcycle, but Glazer seems disinterested in fleshing out the details from Faber’s novel and is more concerned with capturing alienation. Everything about Under the Skin is committed to affecting an ethereal distance, with the score constantly droning in conjunction with Glazer’s painterly, detached, yet mesmerizing compositions. Scotland is transformed into an otherworldly landscape, its dreary hills and moors holding as much menace as its dingy, dusky inner cities. Even a nightclub takes on the horrifying tenor of a nightmare when the woman is unwittingly dragged in by an inexplicable parade of women.
It’s here that Glazer’s point begins to emerge alongside the film’s thin but profound narrative arc: the woman here is at least a bit horrified and becomes even more so as she approaches some kinship with humanity. The first movement of the film plays like a decaffeinated riff on Lifeforce and perhaps purposely so: whereas Mathilda May's temptress certainly knows what power she wields through her sexuality, Johansson is a more of a dead-eyed succubus acting out a mechanical impulse and seems only vaguely aware of her body’s influence and command over her captors. There’s not even a sense that she enjoys or knows what she’s doing—it’s just all some kind of ritual or duty for her. An encounter with a man suffering from a facial deformity begins to change that; for the woman, this lonely man—who has rarely (if ever) known the touch of another human being—is something of a kindred spirit, and it awakens a faint sense of agency within her.
Since Glazer provides few cues in the way of dialogue or action, much of the onus is on Johansson to communicate this to audiences for the latter half of the film, which recalls the likes of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Starman. Johansson is fascinating as hell here, a real presence despite the threadbare nature of Under the Skin. The way Glazer manages to displace her despite intimately shooting her interactions with the men via dashcam (these exchanges often feel as raw as something like Taxicab Confessions) is disorienting: you feel as if you should know something about this woman, and it’s a testament to Johansson that she remains at a distance for much of the film. Her energy is constantly left-of-center, and Glazer consistently subverts the male gaze with cold, clinical lensing; one senses that the two are working in concert to create bewildering layers that slowly peel off as the woman attempts to become comfortable in her skin (this entails her examining her body much like she did an insect earlier in the film—very deliberately and with a childlike curiosity).
Her energy is constantly left-of-center, and Glazer consistently subverts the male gaze with cold, clinical lensing; one senses that the two are working in concert to create bewildering layers that slowly peel off as the woman attempts to become comfortable in her skin (this entails her examining her body much like she did an insect earlier in the film—very deliberately and with a childlike curiosity). Watching a spark of life subtly emerge within Johansson’s otherwise robotic turn is captivating. Even here, Johansson confines much her performance to her eyes, which manage to exhibit only faint hints of curiosity, lust, joy, trepidation, confusion but mounds of terror as she truly begins to confront not just her own latent humanity but the actual humanity surrounding her. Johansson manages to turn a piece of cake into a harrowing, disgusting proposition, and her reckoning with actual sex becomes a frightening existential crisis.
That it comes down to sex seems rather pointed: Under the Skin is about an extraterrestrial identifying with humanity, but it’s specifically attentive to its gender roles. Johansson’s alien identifies as a woman finds her part changing as her knowledge of sex evolves. Initially, she’s only a dutiful succubus working in service of a greater purpose beyond her own pleasure, and it’s her eventual refusal to conform to a man’s libidinal urges that undoes her. She’s not meant to know the actual pleasures of sex—only the motions and movements, the beat but not the song—and it’s her natural desires that have her cast out of Eden in this really fucked-up riff on the Genesis story. Ultimately, this woman is meant to bear the same shame that’s been codified and inflicted upon the gender, here magnified to hellfire and brimstone proportions.
Up until that moment, Under the Skin is only quietly unsettling. For 100 minutes, Glazer pokes around and treads upon the edges of genuine disturbance before unleashing mankind's pure ugliness. An early scene where the woman cruelly leaves an infant child wailing on the shore feels like a setup to instill distrust and fear towards the alien; by the end of the film, your sympathy lies with her once you realize she is only reacting to completely inhuman impulses. What’s more disturbing here are the human impulses and the realization that she’s supposed to be just visiting earth. We call it home, and that’s goddamn terrifying. Buy it!
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