March 17, 2014: Under the Skin


Under The Skin’s alternative working title could well have been “Stranger Danger”. Scarlett Johansson is an alien femme fatal on the hunt for men; vulnerable lonely men or men that just want to have sex with a beautiful stranger – so most men. The alien we meet is an alien on a mission, a fully formed man-hunting machine uninterested and, at first, unaffected by the human world – a human world where she, as a beautiful female, is also desired and hunted.

It’s a bleak representation of modern day masculinity, where many of the men are so easily lead to their deaths by the promise of easy sex. There is no gender equality here; the men are either predatory or weak victims of their own desire. Even the use of real members of the public and hidden cameras does nothing to bolster the image of masculinity in this film, if they are not trying to sleep with the alien they are terrified of a confident woman – as the Director Jonathan Glazer noted when Johansson was driving around Glasgow trying to pick up unsuspecting men. “Something was quite interesting, that when she [Johansson] bent the conversation towards a more forward line of enquiry, one that had a possibly seductive undertone to it, many of them [members of the public] shrank away, when faced with an assertive female presence they were scared, they just wilted”… but then wouldn’t you if Scarlett Johansson tried to pick you up in a van in Glasgow? In fact it is the use of ordinary people in Under The Skin that creates the truly alien feel of the film. Scarlett Johansson looks even more otherworldly when walking down a street surrounded by normal pudgy, badly-dressed Glaswegians, rather than the Hollywood extras we are used to seeing. It is this point of view that allows us to see humanity through the eyes of the interloper – self-serving, hungry and alien. It also does something perhaps unintended. Glazer has created an almost documentary feel, an alien observing humanity and getting to grips with its ugliness as well as its beauty.

It’s an incredible achievement in tone that the film can jump between Scarlett Johansson turning the heads of real people outside Claire’s Accessories; to her minimal Kubrick-inspired kill room. Men wading head first into the unknown of dark desire has never before been captured quite so succinctly in film. Indeed the metaphysical nature of this room (surely one would be alarmed to find themselves in a blank space – liquid floor situation) is a fantastic metaphor for the illusion, danger and ultimate emptiness of desire without emotion. Kubrick’s influence is keenly felt in these metaphysical scenes, we have to ask ourselves what is real and what is illusion in this room and in our own sensual quests? Similarly the deliberately 70s look of Johansson invokes the Sci-fi films of that period, where body snatching and consciousness swapping were all the rage. Mica Levi’s hair-raising synth score acts as a lovely retro touch that binds the documentary approach with the metaphysical mind bending.

It’s a refreshing change to see a more art house experimental Sci-fi film, rather than the visual explosion-riddled Star Trek fest of more established science fiction. What’s more interesting about this trope of Sci-fi film is the unsaid. 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot be understood in isolation, you need to have read one or two Arthur C. Clarke novels or have a BFI text book to hand in order to understand the gaps in the narrative. Similarly, in Under The Skin we are to think that maybe this alien has not been given all the information to equip her for her mission. From the outset we know that all will not end well for her. The film begins with a naked Scarlett Johansson stripping the clothes off her predecessor, a single tear falling from the corpse’s eye. If I had to strip the clothes of the dead body of my predecessor, I’d have to give the job role a think, and indeed Johansson captures this moment with perfect detached delicacy.

Under The Skin is an incredibly daring and unusual film. A cold-hearted alien dealing with her human form, understanding the power and the danger of femininity, and indeed the destructive nature of beauty, it is a completely different end of the feminine spectrum compared to Her, Johansson recent bodiless chattering sex bomb incarnation. Thank the cinema heavens that Scarlett Johansson has started to make decent films again. In Under The Skin she is so much more than a lovely décolletage.

Originally posted at Litro, March 17, 2014