From the moment the film begins with a discordant flurry of violins accompanying disturbingly abstract imagery, it’s clear that Director Jonathan Glazer doesn’t want “Under The Skin” to be a comfortable viewing experience.
It tells the story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who arrives on Earth and assumes the identity of a young woman in order to seduce unsuspecting men. But she is a hunter, interested only in harvesting the flesh and organs of her prey to be sent back to her home planet. She is assisted and monitored by a silent, leather-clad motorcyclist, a fellow alien who ensures any evidence of her actions is removed to avoid suspicion.
Though it deals with an alien visitation and the use of sexuality as a weapon, “Under The Skin” is so much more than “Species” for the Art House crowd. Filmed in a detached, off-kilter pseudo-documentary style, the interactions between the alien huntress (named Laura in the marketing material and cast list but I don’t recall it being mentioned in the film) and the innocent potential victims is both amusing and disconcerting, showing how easily opportunism and desperation conspire to make the men willing victims of the trippily ambient infinity chamber where they meet their grisly fate. Although there is copious nudity throughout the film, it feels neither voyeuristic or salacious instead serving to emphasise and heighten the sense of vulnerability of the characters.
One of the film’s core strengths is that it rarely explains anything and we are left to come to conclusions based on nothing but what we see: our understanding of the aliens’ motives, objectives and thoughts are only skin deep. Glazer is careful to ensure that any residual affection or rapport we have with the actress Scarlett Johansson is stripped away, with several scenes reminding us just how alien she is behind the facade. There is one particular sequence set on a beach which is so chilling and utterly inhuman that it still troubles me now, and may haunt me forever.
Johansson is magnificent, delivering a mesmeric performance of depth and complexity. On the rare occasions where her character speaks, she masters a flawless English accent which cleverly juxtaposes against the broad, guttural Scottish accents around her, simultaneously humanising her and marking her out as different from those around her. There’s real skill and subtlety in the way she explores her character’s increasing identity crisis as the world of human sensation and experience begin their own slow seduction of her alien psyche. The small cast is equally impressive, especially Michael Moreland and a brave performance by Adam Pearson as the men who, separately, spark her doubts in her mission.
The stunning landscape of Scotland and the city of Glasgow are important characters in the film as well and are beautifully shot by Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin while the final, vital ingredient is Mica Levi’s playfully sinister and haunting score. Levi’s music is used sparingly but to powerful effect and never more so than the final seduction theme used as the trap closes around the alien’s victims and ironically subverted at the film’s finale when the hunter becomes the hunted.
As much a horror film as a Sci-Fi thriller, this is a powerhouse performance by Scarlett Johansson and a masterpiece of filmmaking by Jonathan Glazer.