Director Jonathan Glazer’s bold, ambitious and ambiguous experimental sci-fi horror sees Scarlett Johansson’s seductive yet predatory alien-in-human-form trawl Glasgow’s bleak streets seeking men to victimise…
Director Jonathan Glazer, who previously made Sexy Beast and Birth, brings Under the Skin to the screen, an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel by Michael Faber, which details the story of an extra-terrestrial visitor who arrives on Earth in order to prey upon men. The alien then takes on the form of Scarlett Johansson (akin to Natasha Henstridge in Species), prowls around the streets of Glasgow picking up men before meeting what can only be described as the most extraordinarily strange fate imaginable. Some of the film is done with very elaborate and elegant special effects, whilst other parts of it are done with Scarlett Johansson driving around the streets of Glasgow in a van with hidden cameras in the manner of Candid Camera. Some of the men she encounters are actual actors, who know what’s going on, but some of them aren’t, and as a result, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between whose who. This could be also seen as an elaborate way of getting Scarlett Johansson, the Hollywood star, to do what the alien is doing, which is to basically dress up in order to pretend to be somebody else and then prowl an alien-like landscape where she might not be comfortable hanging out in, and have conversations with earthlings who may not recognise her.
That is then juxtaposed with these very extraordinary and elegant special effects sequences in which the men are led to some horrible fate, which on the one hand, owes a debt to the shock-factor effects work of Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with bodies disintegrating on the inside. On the other hand, it inhabits the serenity of Richard Wilson’s breathtaking art installation, 20:50, which has vast pools of oil that appear solid, but threaten to engulf, and in the film, as Johansson walks calmly on the surface, the aroused men sink and disappear into the oily cosmic void below.
There are very different and warring elements going on in the film, and as a result, Under the Skin is partly successful but wholly ambitious. Jonathan Glazer spent the last nine years, on and off, struggling to try and distil the exact essence of Faber’s novel, working through several drafts and writers before arriving at a version that strips things right back to the bare bone. This has resulted in him making the film he wants to make. While the source material made many satirical stabs at a range of human targets, from sexuality to factory farming, Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell conjure what is a sparse and yet ethereal fable that bizarrely juxtaposes scenes of highly orchestrated fantasy with gritty realism to disorienting effect. Elsewhere, the tone of the film veers and changes, going from stark and bleak horror (Johansson’s blank and emotionless reaction to a beach-bound family tragedy) to dawning sympathy (Johansson’s encounter with a young man with neurofibromatosis challenges the perception of beauty and ugliness), with the spectre of cosmic loneliness gnawing away at the edges of the frame.
In terms of both the narrative and the atmosphere, the film clearly owes a debt to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, which too was based on a novel, and had David Bowie as an extra-terrestrial who comes to Earth in search of water and pretends to be a human. But he then starts to inhabit all the things about humanity, and then actually, strangely becomes corrupted by it. Like Bowie’s Newton, as Johansson’s alien inhabits human form, she becomes somewhat seduced and weakened, with the mysteries of sex and sympathy being contributing factors to her demise.
Underpinning the film is Mica Levi’s sublime soundtrack, which cleverly concocts the feelings of seduction, foreboding and haunting creepiness. On the one hand, the soundtrack has these strange groaning, sound-fragments of what could be like an alien language, yet on the other hand, has this wonderfully percussive, scraping, buzzing accompaniment. Brilliantly, all this blurs the lines between the sound and the musical, blending together in one bubbling cauldron of strangeness.
However, whilst the film is very ambitious and there are individual elements in it that work perfectly, overall, it’s easy to see why it divides audiences. At its early festival screening some people could be heard booing at the credits while others cheered. It is a very ambitious attempt to take a very strange, exotic, otherworldly story, film it in oddly familiar surroundings and landscapes, but do it in a way that, at times, is weirdly expressionistic and abstract. For example, the surreal opening sequence could either be seen as a journey across galaxies or the creation of an alien eye, yet it’s very hard to tell which. All these things are ambitious and admirable, but personally, it doesn’t all work, it doesn’t all hang together, and there will be audiences who’ll just be simply bored or frustrated by the experience. Also, there’s a somewhat distracting element of not being able to tell if some of the people Johansson picks up or talks to are really actors or just ordinary people.
The film’s ambition is very admirable, and if a filmmaker should fall, it’s best he/she should fall on his/her own terms, and in the case of this, it’s clearly the work of someone who is aiming as high as he can for the heavens, but unafraid of falling to Earth. Overall, Under the Skin is a bold, singular, flawed, yet admirably flawed, adaptation of a complex book.