We’re in the midst of a science-fiction boom at the movies, and while that’s great for fans of fighting robots and futuristic dystopias, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re not seeing a lot that's new. The genre has largely become a mash-up of well-known conventions and design aesthetics, warmed up and re-served on an annual basis with little originality to keeps things interesting. It’s exactly what makes the arrival of Jonathan Glazer’s brazenly original Under the Skin such a shock to the system.
Starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien creature trolling the streets for human prey, it’s a mesmerizing and haunting film that refuses to concern itself with traditional genre or even narrative conventions. The result is an unforgettable piece of art-house sci-fi that may alienate audiences used to the hyperkinetic spectacle that dominates most screens, but those that are able to slip under its spell will enjoy one of the most striking theatrical experiences this year.
A true piece of experiential storytelling
The premise of Glazer's film, based on the Michel Faber novel, is sketched with the roughest of outlines. After pilfering clothes from a young dead woman, Johansson sets off in a white van to pick up random men from the streets of Scotland. Back at her place she traps them in a strange fluid, suspended like bugs in amber. They’re slowly drained — of energy? Of their organs? It’s not entirely clear — until there’s nothing left but a floating bag of skin. Johansson’s curiosity about the people she’s hunting grows, however, and after letting one victim free she ends up on the run with a mysterious motorcyclist in pursuit.
If that sounds a bit bizarre and confusing that’s because it is, but Glazer has created a film that is impossible to reduce down to plot points. It’s a true piece of experiential storytelling, conveying its thoughts and feelings not with clunky exposition and conventional story beats but with textures and mood. The film moves forward with a deliberate, almost meditative pace, lingering on single shots or the tiniest of actions so the viewer can take in the world in all its nuance. First-time composer Mica Levi sets the stage with a score that is both hypnotic and horrifying, overwhelming the audience with atmospheric crescendo at one moment and then trapping them with nothing more than an unsettling drum beat as Johansson lures a victim to his doom.
The nightmarish imagery is anchored by Johansson's performance
Glazer’s been directing features for a while now (Sexy Beast, Birth), but unlike some contemporaries who have made the jump from music videos, he’s not afraid to embrace the kind of aesthetic experimentation that permeates the best short-form work. Under the Skin opens with abstract imagery and embraces a trippy, nightmarish formalism during the sequences in Johansson’s lair. It calls to mind Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas’ THX 1138, but those meticulously crafted visuals contrast sharply with the guerrilla immediacy of the pick-up sequences. There’s a tension between the two approaches, a humming discord that burrows its way into your brain and creates a looming unease.
Johansson is the film’s center, and she anchors it adeptly despite having a largely non-verbal role. The only time she actually speaks is when she’s picking up her victims, and there she almost seems to be playing a movie-star version of herself, all acceptance and engaging smiles. Glazer took the unusual step of shooting the pick-up scenes with hidden cameras as Johansson talked to regular people that didn’t know they were being filmed, and it adds all the jangly energy (and impenetrable accents) of real life. For the rest of the film, however, the actress is limited to body language and facial expressions alone, but is still able to realize her character’s childlike perspective even while she’s committing some horrible deeds.
In many ways, Johansson's performance here serves as a companion piece to her work in Spike Jonze's Her. In that film she was limited to just her voice as she portrayed a vibrant AI that slowly evolved past the need for traditional human interactions. Here she largely loses her ability to speak as she realizes a character that becomes absolutely desperate for person-to-person contact.
Glazer’s film asks a lot of questions, but it demonstrates an unrelenting refusal to provide any answers. Of course, that’s largely the point; this is a movie design to elicit an emotional response and spur on conversation, and after the film’s final images it’s impossible to not feel the need to talk it out with someone. Even those that hate Under the Skin will find themselves turning it over in their heads, unable to shake its unsettling air of creeping dread. Glazer has created a mesmerizing science-fiction fable about the emotional lure of humanity, but most importantly of all, he’s created something that is truly, wholly original.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is now playing. Images courtesy of A24 Films.