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Under the Skin Review: Taking You Under Our Society

Ten years in the making and director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) has executed a near perfect masterpiece that is a very dark, abstract alien mind trip, which wreaks echoes of 1976, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth; but this time trades in a sparse desert wasteland of New Mexico for the fog-layered hills of Glasgow. What the audience lays witness to in its 107 minute running time is a film that delves into the dangers of our own world, at the same time making it look like a foreign planet. All seen through the eyes of a seductive, yet vulnerable, alien.

Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson, who plays the seductive alien who arrives on Earth. We quickly learn that her aim is to embody a female human so she can lure in Scottish men who are on the fringes of society. From the word go, Under the Skin lets us know that this is no ordinary, generic piece of cinema; with an opening sequence that is so abstract and original that it pulls you in to the mind of Johansson’s alien straight away. She then goes off and drives around in a white van looking for men who are lonely, and easy targets.

Unfortunately, there is never a reason given for what she’s doing. The film implies though that she might have to entice the men into her home so she can fuel the alien’s existence, but it’s ultimately left down to the viewer’s interpretation, which is bound to annoy some. However, one thing is for sure: the sequence where the men travel through some kind of wormhole is executed so brilliantly that you wouldn’t dare breathe. Glazer makes you quickly forget the ‘Why?’ and instead focus on the men’s seduced state that traps them in a pit of black sludge.

After a period of picking up hitchhikers, I was beginning to think it might become a bit repetitive if it carries on like that; however, just as it starts to slow down, Glazer throws in a couple of shocks that are both surprising and heartbreaking. It takes the film in a new direction – where it starts off as a cold alien road movie, it transforms into a study of how an extraterrestrial copes in the strange world we live in, and why people do what they do.

Under the Skin is most certainly a fitting name, as it deals with the theme of judging others on the fringes of society, who might simply seem easy targets because they do not have friends or family.

While Johansson’s alien is preying on loners she, in fact, is one herself. In a few scenes in the film she has a chance to show human qualities and kindness, but is unaware of how to accomplish this, as she lacks experience with understanding human empathy. It’s a smart piece of writing and directing from the filmmakers – where a less ordinary film might have shown the alien trying to destroy the world and become almost indestructible, Johansson’s alien is just as fragile and weak as us humans.

That is what makes the film have a sense of realism. It’s portraying someone unfamiliar with a world, who sees no danger on the surface, but once you get ‘under the skin’ of this planet, all the hidden dangers, and layers to society, seep through.

With the dangers becoming greater right up until the film’s mesmerizing and shocking final act, it is a fitting end that shows both the ugly and bizarre side of the world.

The only minor issue I had with the film was the appearance of the motor bikers as aliens (seemingly the ones who brought Johansson to Earth.) They appear as nothing more than a bit of added mystery and suspense for the final act, without really developing the idea or delving deep enough into their motivations. It just felt a bit out of place.

One thing that does fit perfectly into the film is the use of hidden cameras to capture the real encounters Johansson had with strangers. Glazer has intertwined the real interactions with the scripted ones seamlessly, making it enjoyable to try and figure out if what you are watching is real or acted.

It’s not just the hidden camera work that is impressive though; cinematographer Daniel Landin is clearly on board with Glazer’s vision as he sets up eerie shots throughout to complement the scripts tone. Also, his use of wide shots to capture the cold and dark feel of Glasgow suits the film perfectly.

Just to put the icing on the cake, the score by first-time composer Mica Levi heightens the atmosphere with seamless transition between soundtrack and sound effects. The sounds are always plugging away in the background to give a sense of unease, and force upon the feeling of imminent dread.

This is also possibly Scarlett Johansson’s best performance to date, keeping her lines deadpan and offbeat (because an Alien wouldn’t pick up the rhythms of natural speech quickly.)  She is a perfect match for Under the Skin, and deserves attention for her performance.

Overall the film is an ambitious study of our world told through an outsider’s eyes. So after ten years in production, Jonathan Glazer has crafted something so close to perfection that you quickly forget about the wait. However, the film will not be everyone’s cup of tea, as it doesn’t follow a regular story structure and opts instead for a non linear narrative; which will probably divide audiences. At least one thing is for sure: You won’t see anything like Under the Skin again this year. So check it out when it’s released in selected cinemas on the 4th of April (US).