by Matt Levine
The human body is a ravishing enigma in Under the Skin—a landscape concealing an even vaster 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 overwhelming audio-visual wavelength, intimating a story of death and alienation through foreboding, cryptic poetry. A cosmic opening resembles 2001’s “Star Gate” and a number of swooping tracking shots bring The Shining to mind, but with his haunting austerity and oneiric visceral majesty, 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 (novel)
Cinematographer: Daniel Landin
Editor: Paul Watts
Music: Mica Levi
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hádek, Roy Armstrong, Paul Brannigan
Premiere: August 29, 2013 – Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014
US Distributor: A24
Under the Skin follows in the footsteps of Glazer's first two features, the crime-gone-awry nightmare Sexy Beast (2000) and the elegiac Birth (2004). If the first was profanely verbose and, at times, hyperkinetic, Birth was its opposite extreme—a quiet, melancholy chiller about a widow’s husband reincarnated in a 10-year-old boy. Aside from their magisterial command of film form, the two films share in common a manipulation of genre structures—the heist flick in one, a gothic ghost story in the other—as vehicles for questioning human nature and metaphysical riddles like fate and undying love. The earliest precursors for Glazer’s stylistic and thematic interests, though, lie in the music videos he directed early in his career—notably Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” with their acrobatic cinematography and morbidly strange conceits.
Glazer pushes his fondness for quizzical storylines, meticulous aesthetics, and stark existentialism to its astounding breaking point in Under the Skin, adapted from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel. In the book, an extraterrestrial named Isserley lured hitchhikers in northern Scotland to their doom, returning them to her big-business employers back home, where human meat is considered a delicacy. For his adaptation, Glazer and his co-screenwriter Walter Campbell embrace the opportunities of cinema (and avoid its limitations) by merely suggesting this bizarre storyline and its satirical undercurrents through foreboding glimmers of plot and characterization.
The film is hypnotic from its opening images: accompanied by a chillingly 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 alien entity being announced in this case takes on the personified form of Scarlett Johansson. We first encounter her in a blindingly 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, an overwhelming experience that only arrives in cinemas every once in a while.
Though her reasons for doing so remain obscure, Johansson’s alien proceeds to roam the highways of northern Scotland in search of unwitting men to seduce. There is no pleasure in her pursuit, not even a gloating superiority over the men who fall into her trap with distressing ease—merely the obligation of a being carrying out a mandatory task. The editing in these early scenes, as she and her victim trade arbitrary conversation in the front of her van, is fractious and disorienting, almost never featuring the two characters in the frame at once—emphasizing the lack of human investment in the exchange, at least from the alien’s perspective. Glazer has revealed that many of these scenes were filmed with unaware male passersby using hidden cameras, even going so far as inventing new devices 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 true-to-life humanism that prevents the film from becoming overly detached.
Glazer balances the unpolished verity of these scenes with a dazzling, precise formal ingenuity that is literally awe-inspiring. The sequences in which the alien brings her victims to what seems to be an abandoned warehouse covered in bottomless pits of jet-black oil might be the most jaw-dropping experiences you’ll have in a theater this year: as she enticingly undresses and sulks across the reflective surface, the naked and fully erect men lustfully follow her, unaware that they’re sinking deeper into the obsidian abyss. Under the Skin teasingly resists showing us what exact fate the men encounter—at least until we’re suddenly submerged in the amniotic blackness with one of them. He witnesses the grotesque, inexplicable evisceration of another captive, a sequence which 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 lecherous creeps, at least laughably willing to follow this gorgeous vision wherever she leads them for the promise of sex. Wowed by her surface beauty, they are mostly disinterested in who she actually is. The film functions implicitly as a subversion of a sex-obsessed, skin-deep culture, and of male sexual entitlement in particular; at times the alien is almost an avenging angel, turning their shallow carnality into their own grisly downfall. Under the Skin can conceivably be read as a broad, metaphorical comment on gender inequality and sexual violence, as evidenced by reviews which have deemed the film an attempt to displace rape culture onto male audiences, instilling an uneasy sense of pervasive 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 sex or physical appearance. The theme may sound trite, but explored through Johansson’s glassy, enigmatic 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 alien realizes this gradually as the film charts a path from icy terror to mournful humanism. At first, she is an absolutely heartless creature: she watches stoically 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 quiet 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 austere style—the moment in which the alien elects to be a part of this earthbound world—but it’s also the beginning of her destruction.
Her next relationship is even more intimate: now pursued by her interplanetary overseers for letting her prey live, she accepts shelter from a shy loner. This man 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 mar his chivalrous behavior. While Under the Skin is, on the whole, solemn and chilly, 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-omened from the start: her reticent attempts to make love with this man (for the first time with a human) end disastrously, and a shocking, unforgettable climax proves to her the cruelty of which humanity (and men in particular) are capable. The final image of the film completes a brilliant and somber cycle: dead matter returning to a cosmic plane beyond our own, fleetingly a part of this world yet ultimately a victim of its cold inhumanity.
Earth ultimately has a tragic fate in store for her, but our planet had seemed so alluring and promising to her at one point. Earlier documentary images of real Glasgow residents, filmed unawares through the van’s windows, astound the alien in their eclecticism and vibrancy: she eagerly observes an infinity of unique faces, impromptu street performances, the innumerable oddities to be discovered in the city. Making use of Johansson’s subtle expressivity and the masterful cinematography (courtesy of Daniel Landin), Under the Skin is truly able to convey the dizzying newness of earth as perceived through alien eyes; it’s like seeing our modern world all over again for the first time. The film’s tone is austere and haunting, but it’s a testament to its thematic complexity and Glazer’s originality that our existence is not portrayed as a dreary slog, but as an explosive maelstrom capable of its own fleeting joys and beauty.
A shimmering puzzle that’s invigorating to unpack, Under the Skin is simple on the surface (its sparse dialogue, comprising less than five minutes 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 inimitable sensory rush, it’s a masterpiece of suggestion and circumscription, merely scratching at unanswerable quandaries of existence. Glazer’s commanding ability to evoke a distinct and foreboding world has propelled him to the forefront of directors working today—whatever his next project is, there will be absurdly high expectations for it. With Under the Skin, he lures us into a gorgeously bleak morass not unlike the glistening abyss in which the alien suspends her ravished prey; it’s a spellbinding, indefinable, terrifying place to be.