VOD film review: Under the Skin
Ivan Radford | On 08, Jul 2014
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Watch Under the Skin online in the UK: BritBox UK / All 4 / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Under the Skin is a film that sticks with you, to your insides, for an inhuman amount of time.
Jonathan Glazer’s bizarre sci-fi begins with a sequence that could either be something launching through space or the creation of a human. That existential ambiguity – and hint of voyeurism – festers as Glazer introduces an alien (Scarlett Johansson) driving round Glasgow. Shot on the sly, with the actress clad in black wig and furs, she picks up men using innocuous smalltalk from her bright, red lips. A Hollywood star in disguise as a regular person, wrapped up in the coat of another animal; in this foreign land, identity is defined by what’s on the top.
That’s certainly how blokes view it. The victims who find themselves in her passenger seat are lured by her looks into a reflective prison of dark, glassy nakedness. What follows is a reversal of that longing, a discarding of the outer layers like soiled tissue paper. Driven by the thudding heartbeat of Mica Levi’s eerie score, it’s a spectacle that’s as incomprehensible as it is horrifying.
Is Johansson there to devour men? To learn about them? To mine them for fuel? Glazer doesn’t concern himself with why she’s here, not because it adds to the unsettling uncertainty of it all – it does – but because there are more important questions to ask. What isn’t she here to do? And what happens if she does it?
Followed around by a minder on a motorbike, Johansson’s alien appears to abandon her function and become curious about the creatures around her. Before, her imitation was a strange, hollow trick to trap those wanting to get (ahem) under her skin. “I live alone,” they would say. “Oh, you live alone?” she would echo. Now, performing mundane acts, she comes across as weird, earnest – and curiously vulnerable.
Glazer shoots this all with an eye for grubby realism and a mind for high art. Close-up, guerilla footage flows into flawless special effects; Kubrick meets Ken Loach. The most stunning visual of all, though, is Johansson herself. All eyes and mouth, her face is coy and smiling when reeling people in, yet cold and passive when looking out across a beach. Then, it transforms completely as physical contact sparks a sudden awareness of her body – a splash of Cronenberg horror and a fear of intimacy both recognisably familiar yet jarringly not.
Johansson’s probing reveals the kindness of people only concerned with what’s on the inside – but it excavates their ugly side too, exposing a parade of scary things people bury beneath the surface. Subverting its predator-prey dichotomy with a more human form of terror, the result is an almost feminist sci-fi, a dark exploration of humanity that, in under two hours, takes viewers all the way from creation to ashes and dust.
That’s where Under the Skin’s creepiness comes from: by embracing an alien perspective, the film detaches us from everyday life, encountering the full range of our nature as if for the first time. Does this alien understand her own existence? Or learn something of our race? However you interpret it, this is a provocative, uncompromising piece that dares you to watch while all your nerves tingle.
Haunting, moving, hypnotic. Under the Skin doesn’t just itch beneath your epidermis; it burrows through your brain and lays its alien eggs deep in your flesh. The one thing – perhaps the most fascinating of all – you can say for certain? Her reaction to the film would be completely different to any of our own.
Under the Skin is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on All 4 until 9th January 2021.