Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Under the Skin

It’s been ten years since Jonathan Glazer’s last film and nearly a decade and a half since his wonderful screen début Sexy Beast. His third film, Under the Skin, is a dark and chilling science fiction horror, loosely based on Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name. It stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on men, using her siren like looks and charm to pull them towards the rocks and to their demise. The movie is incredible, at times getting close to the best I’ve seen in cinema. It veers wildly though towards the opposite extreme with passages of nothingness which reminded me of the torrid time I had while watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Extremes exist elsewhere too with sequences which wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery side by side with almost documentary style shooting, filmed with hidden cameras.

The film opens with an abstract scene, perhaps the formation of an eye or the creation of a being. It signals birth or re-birth and sets us up for what is to come. From the very first moments we know this is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen before and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The opening establishes the link between the known and unknown, creating tantalising glimpses into who or what we are about to be confronted with before concluding on the recognisable image of an eye, at first still, then moving, depicting consciousness. Although it – or she – may well be aware of her surroundings, the alien shows no emotion regarding what she sees. She’s a cold machine, showing not even contempt for her victims. She’s focussed and has a singular task. In one of the film’s most horrifying scenes, a baby is left stranded on a beach. Though screeching for help, she’s ignored by the strange visitor who acts coldly, even blindly to the presence of the child. As humans we want to protect and mother the infant but to the alien, its screams don’t even register. It’s a scene that sent chills down my spine.

Scarlett Johansson’s performance is utterly terrifying. She exhibits a cold, thousand yard stare, giving nothing away as to what she’s thinking. She has an eerie quality and seems dangerous but yet men accompany her to her ‘house’, assuming they’re in the midst of the luckiest day of their lives. Let’s be honest, if Johansson pulled up beside you in a van and offered you a lift, it would be difficult to turn it down. Flip the scene around though and put the man in the van, crawling slowly down dimly lit streets, stopping to flirt with young women and the outcome would be the complete opposite. The men blindly follow their alien femme fatale towards a dark end, unable to resist her. The sway that the character has over her prey is palpable. Although hidden under a dark wig and given a grungy look, Johansson still looks as good as ever. It’s interesting that as an actress known more for her body than her craft, that she gives perhaps her best performance in a film in which she bares all. I’d already decided to see the film before I knew about this but the chance to see Scarlett Johansson naked did little to dampen my anticipation about seeing the movie.

What the film says about humanity and in particular its fascination with the celebrity is very interesting. Johansson often slips unnoticed amongst the ‘normal’ people of Glasgow, filmed secretly with hidden cameras. This is a strange thing to see but it shouldn’t be. She actress is virtually identical to every one of us but as a society we build celebrities up into something else, almost super-humans. In this sense, seeing Scarlett Johansson pass by Claire’s Accessories and H. Samuel, she is very much the alien. An interloper into ‘our’ world. The fact that her character feeds off us is as strong a metaphor as the film produces. The character’s developments in the latter stages also speak about what it is to be human.  

Filmed mostly under natural light, the movie is dark and grimy but at the same time exquisitely beautiful. Glazer uses the lack of light to his advantage, highlighting certain aspects of the alien’s features and allowing her to operate almost unseen yet in full view. Certain scenes smack of social realism, evoking Ken Loach or Mike Leigh but with the visual flare of Park Chan-wook and the minimalist pre-title sequence, seemingly ripped from Kubrick’s 2001, this is a film of contrasts. The hidden camera style isn’t entirely successful but it allows for the actress and her character to visit our world in a realistic way, picking up real men who themselves take on speaking roles. Alongside these are Glazer’s beautifully staged shots. The magnificent visuals are coupled with a score of the highest quality. Coming somewhere between cinematic score and a series of sound effects, it had a similar effect on me as Irréversible’s pulsating infrasound. It creates an uneasiness and rarely goes where you’d expect, suddenly introducing high frequency strings, scratching on top of the low, constant thud of a drum. You feel it in your stomach. The score is indeed one of the finest achievements in the entire picture.

In the latter stages, the film leaves behind its experimental beginnings and opts for a more conventional route to its shocking conclusion. I was slightly disappointed with this because although I was at times bewildered, I was never bored. The alien’s new-found understanding of human emotion, identity crisis and developing empathy are at times touching but I preferred the confusing darkness of the earlier scenes. There’s also a repetitiveness which is at time frustrating and occasionally I wanted the film to find new ground while remaining overtly cerebral and unpredictable. Throughout these scenes, I may have been bored but I remained, at all times, fascinated. The horror elements kept me glued to my seat and I don’t recall blinking or even breathing for about 100 minutes. Scenes inside the alien’s dwelling are amongst the creepiest I’ve seen for some time and it is them as well as the dark, brooding tone which will stay with me the longest. Under the Skin is a bold experiment of a film. It doesn’t always work but when it does, it’s spectacular. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before and I feel as though I won’t see anything like it again. Just three films into his motion picture career, director Jonathan Glazer has marked himself out as one of the most interesting and challenging directors working today.

GFR 9/10

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  1. I was going to wait and watch this at home, but your review has made me want to see this in theaters when it comes to where I live. Great job. You do have a good point if it was a man playing the alien. It would have a very different tone. Great review

    1. Thanks! I think it's worth seeing at the cinema to get the full effect of the sound if nothing else.

  2. Lovely review! I really want to see the movie but I fear I may be disappointed - it seems like they built a minimalistic movie around the premise of the novel without using its rich, thought provoking themes. A missed opportunity, but hopefully I'll still enjoy the film as something merely inspired by the book.