Under the Skin (dir: Jonathan Glazer)

Posted: March 14, 2014 in English language, Horror, Science Fiction
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I recently watched an interview with the Italian director Dario Argento, in which he commented on the visual style of movies, saying that some films are prose and others are poetry. Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror Under the Skin, I would have to say, falls into the latter camp. This is not a film for the kind of moviegoer who likes everything to be explained and for all loose ends to be tied up. It is, however, a film that contains some quite extraordinary images that resonate in the mind.

Scarlett Johansson gives a dazzling performance as “Laura”, an alien creature who travels around Glasgow luring single men back to a house, where she then traps them in some sort of alien dimension (possibly a food store, as one image suggests). This provides for a series of striking scenes in which we see Laura and her latest victim in a large shiny black space. As Laura divests herself of her clothes and walks backwards, each man walks towards her, entranced, but gradually sinking beneath the black surface whilst Laura remains walking atop it.

Throughout the film we see many events as though through Laura’s eyes. As she drives along the streets of Glasgow in a white van, the city and its inhabitants appear almost as though they are another world to us. Several men are persuaded to climb into Laura’s van as a prelude to their being trapped in her alien dimension. Apparently these men were genuinely unwitting inhabitants of Glasgow, rather than actors, and a series of hidden cameras in the van enabled them and Johannson to be filmed from a variety of angles. When she interacts with these men, Laura smiles and is friendly, but in all other circumstances she is impassive and watchful, like the predator she is.

Various aspects of Under the Skin bring to mind some of the classic science fiction movies, notably 2001 – A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The latter movie contains an iconic scene of David Bowie’s alien viewing an entire bank of television sets. By contrast, Under the Skin gives us the sight of Laura sitting on a sofa in a Scottish living room, eating baked beans on toast, whilst watching Tommy Cooper’s spoon-jar routine on a single television. As this might suggest, there are a number of humorous moments, despite the dark and unsettling nature of much of the film. However, whereas The Man Who Fell to Earth used the device of a science fiction alien to say something about the nature of American consumer/corporate society, Under the Skin gives us a glimpse of individual lives in modern Scotland (presumably any city could have been used as the setting, but there is certainly something striking about the contrast between Johannson’s refined English accent and the broad Glaswegian of those she encounters). In particular, there is an emphasis on socially isolated men.

In the second half, as is the case in so many horror films the action moves to the countryside. There is a crisis of sorts and the predator becomes prey. Laura is vulnerable, and at one point she briefly shows what appears to be some human tenderness. This allows us to feel empathy for her, despite everything that has happened previously. One of the things that is never quite explained is the role of a leather-clad motorcyclist, apparently some kind of minder, and who rounds up one of her victims who has managed to escape. But as noted earlier, it is these open questions that help make Under the Skin so thought-provoking, just as is the case with many David Lynch movies.

Cinematographer Daniel Landin must be praised for some exquisitely shot scenes, including the interior alien dimension and some beautifully raw scenes of the Scottish coast and highlands. The unsettling mood elicited by the story and images is also enhanced by a fine musical score from Micachu.

This is a film unlike anything you will have seen in a long time.

Rating: 10/10.

Previewed at the BFI on 13th March.

This review was originally posted on 13th March, and was updated at 19:57 hours on 14th March.

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