With the possible exception of Prometheus (2012), Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2014) has garnered more complete polarization in acceptance from film-goers than any recent film I can remember. You either think it is a mind-blowing masterpiece or it sucks —my girlfriend hated it. A NY Post critic called it a “sci-fi snooze-fest”. This film is not about butt-naked Scarlett Johansson picking up guys, humping them, and subsequently eating them like a reptilian creature in V. It’s one of the most subdued, impressively lensed and intelligent sci-films of the last decade. In tone and pacing it reminds me so much of Nicholas Roeg’s underrated cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), which some people are also not apparently impressed with HERE (to each their own). Both films deal with an alien entity thrust into human form or society and struggling to adapt to new conditions. Along with John Carpenter’s Starman (1984), The Hidden (1987), Alien Nation (1988), Under the Skin and The Man Who Fell to Earth are perhaps my votes for the best aliens-in-society films.
Scarlett Johansson is a stunning physical beauty, but her deadpan delivery is the same in every film, and no matter who is directing her and whether she is cast as a horny no-talent pianist opposite Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), or a repressive friend in Ghost World (2001), a love interest in Lost in Translation (2003), in a Woody Allen film, as a superhero ex-KGB agent, as a woman with total brain functionality, or a voice of an operating system she is still Scarlett Johansson. Her acting range in limited, but as an alien with awkward social skills she is perfectly cast. I agree with claims from the on-line Indiewire that her performance in Under the Skin is “unlike anything [she] has done before,” but I don’t agree that her performance is erotic. However, I do think it is one of her best performances.
The opening moments set the tone. This film is minimalistic. It’s Kubrickesque. Modern smart phone tapping audiences want action and exposition —an explaination for everything. Tap tap. Where does the alien come from? Is the alien here to destroy humanity or mine for water? Why is ScarJo driving around in Scotland? Answers are not needed. It’s not about why, but about where will the journey take us. Remember that Michael Myers was the boogie man. Rob Zombie missed out on the concept in the remake. He had to explain why the heavy became the boogie man. That’s not important. It just is. ScarJo drives around Scotland in a van, picks up men and then consumes them. Along the way she changes. That’s what the film is about. Earth is a hostile planet.
I like how ScarJo uses cheap pick up lines to lure in men. She says corny things like [paraphrasing] “Do you surf here often?” or “Are you from here?” I’d jump in a van with ScarJo anytime anyplace anywhere for anything.
Under the Skin was exquisitively lensed across urban landscapes and rugged Scottish terrain by DOP Daniel Landin. The contrasting settings, use of primary colors and earth tones make this film like few sc-fi’s I’ve ever witnessed. It’s one of the most visually haunting films I have ever seen. I really think it is that good.
I’ll end with a few screen captures. This film was all about imagery.
Shadow Alien (played by Antonia Campbell-Hughes).