UNDER THE SKIN
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenwriters: Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell
Runtime: 107 mins.
Australian release date: 29 May 2014
Jonathan Glazer’s third feature in 12 years, Under The Skin, is based on Michel Faber’s eponymous 2000 science fiction novel. In a bold move, Glazer decided to reveal the book’s twist at the beginning of the film, a complete turn-around to the novel and, by casting one of contemporary Hollywood’s most recognisable actresses in the lead role, he was able to pursue his interest in the idea of disguise. By dropping his star into the real world, he was able to reveal “… the incongruity of Scarlett Johansson in Glasgow, [reflecting that] you’re already in alien territory.” As it turns out, she was not recognised and so, in a classic life imitating art situation, was successfully able to play an alien in human form who drives around Scotland hunting men; men who ultimately wind up as a source of alien nutrition.
Via a very effective prologue, we learn right from the get-go that Johansson is a… ‘something’ disguised in human form; we also learn that she (it?) is being aided by mysterious helmeted motorcyclists. Set up in a van rigged up with a number of hidden cameras, Johansson picks up the men, who are mostly non-professional actors, by pretending to be lost and then offering them a lift, whereupon they are taken back to hers but not for what they think! According to Glazer, “… the men were talked through what extremes they would have to go to if they agreed to take part in the film once they understood what we were doing.” The men are mostly ‘regular’ guys who are somewhat taken aback by the stranger’s beauty and on the whole agree to get into the van. Her encounters do vary though - in one particularly disturbing scene on a lonely beach, the alien witnesses a woman struggling in the wild surf as her companion tries to save her. It is a difficult scene to watch, but one that demonstrates the difference between human responses and those of an extra-terrestrial that appears to be deprived of any emotion.
This is a film that is visually stunning and deeply disturbing. Mica Levi’s (who heads up the UK avant-garde pop band Micchu and the Shapes) eerie, other-worldly score uses a combination of strings and percussion that adds an auditory level to the alien predator’s sensory experience that draws you into her headspace. Spooky! Coupled with Daniel Landin’s (London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony: Isles of Wonder) strange cinematography, the mood is pretty sombre yet enthralling. Under The Skin has already screened at a number of international film festivals and received both rave and negative reviews. It’s certainly one of the most disturbing, intriguing independent films of recent times and, if nothing else, it makes you think anew about the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ The central concept about how we see the world around us and what it’s like to see that world through another’s eyes is a powerful idea, one we should consider more often. And on a more mundane level, it’s also about the danger of accepting lifts from strangers!