It’s a rare feat for a film to successfully convey the voice of the Other. Especially when that voice is an Other to everyone else here on Earth. Loosely based on Michel Faber’s book of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer’s take on Under the Skin finds greater fascination with translating an otherworldly perspective than with the novel’s rather transparent “meat is murder” didactic. It not only makes for a more interesting story, it takes the form of an experience that reminds one of why the medium of film is so special.
Taking place in present-day Scotland, both in and outside Glasgow, Under the Skin follows the alien-hijacked visage of a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she stalks and separates men from the herd, luring them back to her lair to meet an oily doom. That’s merely the premise, though: Glazer’s film slowly emerges as a deeply curious meditation on what it means to be human. It might be a bit hyperbolic to consider it an apt companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it surely touches upon a similar investigative theme, only in reverse. And, wow, like Kubrick’s touchstone, Glazer’s movie, too, is a visual knockout, thanks to the stunning mixture of stillness and claustrophobic disorientation captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin. An example early in the second act, in which a mother and father are tragically swept out to sea, leaving their child on the beach and wailing in terror, will linger long in audiences’ memory (and probably traumatize not a few parents with young children, to boot).
As primal and affecting as the film’s imagery is, its score and sound design is more than a fitting match. Mica Levi’s often jarring, often exquisite postmodern compositions feel as closely informed to a completely alien experience, struggling to interpret this strange planet, as one could imagine. The hyper-reality of the sound design complements it superbly, often acting in concert with the score. (It’s here, perhaps, that Glazer’s background as a director of award-winning music videos is most evident.)
Of course, any film whose story relies on a single actor—regardless of any other of its competencies—can still stumble and not recover if that actor’s performance falls flat. But Scarlett Johansson again proves she’s not merely another pretty face, even if that pretty face is an awfully useful tool in portraying a lethal seductress. Along her character’s journey from dispassionate serial killer to vulnerable human sympathizer, Johansson hits her marks with chilly precision. The casting of Johansson, too, proves additionally inspired; just as with David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the very nature of their iconic presence further distances the notion of mere actors-cum-aliens—they’re already elevated above the clouds in their stratospheric fame.
It will be interesting to see whether or not Glazer’s powerfully cinematic experience will connect with a mainstream audience—it’s beautiful and thoughtful and features an A-list starlet, but it also has a very deliberate pace that may turn many off. However, for those with the patience, and for those who simply love the way a fascinatingly unique film can so fully convey and shape a point of view, Under the Skin will reward the time spent in the theater. It’s as though Glazer was thinking even further outside the book, and worked backward—almost like the title itself was the goal, and the audience the translation.
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writer: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Faber (novel)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Krystof Hádek
Release Date: Apr. 4, 2014