Under The Skin

There's never a point during Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin where it feels as if you're actually on Earth watching this film.

The best movies transport us to another place. But rarely do you see that level of displacement that you get in a film like this, which happens almost entirely amongst the shoddy farm lands and underpopulated cities of Scotland. The easy punchline is that the most beautiful woman on Earth (Scarlett Johansson) is actually an alien. The truth is a lot more complex.

This is an Earth we haven't visited yet, a part of our minds we haven't been to before. The sprawling alien planet at the start of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, as an example, is actually found here (and not in a computer), but it remains a sequence that convinces you that it is a place beyond your imagination. The manner in which Glazer shoots Scotland is similar. You can't help but feel that you're hovering above this land, watching minor human tragedies unfold.

Johansson plays a nameless being arriving on Earth from parts unknown. She walks amongst the people in a posh British accent, but her skin is not her own. Her mission is predatory: she finds men, average blokes with funny teeth, under-fed physiques and soccer jerseys, and seduces them. When they give themselves up to her, however, it is a haunting visual. They enter a pitch-black room, with no walls and no ceilings, and pathetically disrobe as they pursue her. As she walks, they begin to sink. Again, the cheap joke is that Ms. Johansson is so striking that a man following her wouldn't notice he's sinking to his imminent death. But the disturbing vulnerability of it all is unsettling. They slide into an abyss naked, guileless, as Johansson's seductress watches dispassionately. This is routine for her. This is a stygian nightmare for us.

Johansson's character is on a mission, overseen by a mysterious man on a motorcycle. They don't speak: she doesn't talk unless she is attempting to convince men she is human, and available (which, to her, may mean the same thing). The dialogue is incidental. Johansson watches these men, but she never notices anything particularly interesting until a disfigured young gentleman enters her car. He is wary of being mocked, and doesn't at all trust that she's noticed the softness of his fingers, kindness in his eyes. Glazer robs us of these characters' inner monologues and deeper thoughts, which makes a brief moment of this man softly pinching his own hand seem like a touching act of humanity.

Consider, also, a scene where Johansson meets a potential victim on the beach. Their small talk is deceptively simple, but his eye catches a woman frantically wading into the stormy waters on her own. Glazer's camera wordlessly sees her flee into the waves, with a dog yards ahead of her. Another gentleman, far back, yells and attempts to pursue. Johansson's prey, clad in a wet suit, immediately pursues them, jumping in to rescue whomever is in trouble. Johansson merely watches. Does she understand why these humans behave like this? Does it scare her? The abstract resolution of this scene, which involves a lone infant crying in the sand, is one of the most unsettling cinematic moments in years. Glazer seems interested in watching how humans behave, letting you debate why.

Glazer's film, like his groundbreaking music videos, grooves to a certain, specific beat. That would be the stripped-down score by Mica Levi, which features a distorted violin tweaked to sound like a theremin. It is, basically, a horror movie score in the Liquid Sky sense, and Under The Skin would fit that definition.

But Glazer's Kubrickian remove suggests something else. Johansson's intruder experiences an arc of sorts, which matches the strategically-placed nudity. She strips a new piece of clothing for each victim, but it is not until she comes across a man she actually seems to like when she is bare. A moment where she admires her nude figure in the mirror is breathtaking, for reasons both obvious and opaque: she seems just as transfixed as us. “What am I?” she seems to ask, and “What happens to me during sex?” It is a question we all continue to ask.