under the skin
Dir: jonathan glazer
Gen: FROM WAR TO PEACE:ALIENS IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OF CINEMa
To remain attached to a film struggling in development is not always the wisest of career moves, but Scarlett Johansson did exactly that for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, an alien movie unlike any other.
On a small budget of $13.3m and with a poor return of $7.2m, Under the Skin is the least commercially known film in this series and regarded by many as a financial failure. Aside for those in the film world who raved about it, it mostly flew under the radar in budgetary no man's land - too small for a strong marketing campaign but expensive enough to lose significant money. It pushes the idea of alien cinema to the artistic limit, following an extraterrestrial sexual predator who stalks and consumes men across Scotland.
Abstract throughout, the opening pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey with use of striking colours, lenses, shapes and camerawork, showing the very vague provenance of the alien on earth. From this unconventional opening onwards it swings back and forth from drab and pedestrian to shock and intrigue, through a cycle of predation that gradually reveals, but never gets any easier to watch. There is almost no exposition whatsoever, a massive departure from typical science fiction films, which is why it has become such a compelling film to study.
Johansson is fantastic, carrying an aura of unease and complete lack of emotion, particularly early on as she finds her feet on earth. The many situations she finds herself in, be that walking through a shopping centre studying the people around her or dully driving through a housing estate, she is so obviously detached from what is happening. It is not until two thirds of the way through the film that we see her doing something else innately human - eating, and while sexually primal instincts come naturally to her, she struggles to eat properly. The most basic of human needs, providing actual sustenance, is beyond her.
The score by Mica Levi forms a crucially eerie part of the film and is a wonderful response to the question - how do you create tension, unease and an alien element to a film set in urban and countryside Scotland? Almost none of the score is consonant, characterised by wincing clashes of compressed violin chords and background white noise. This unsettling soundscape is so important, because so much of the visual element of the film is mundane we need to feel the terror from somewhere else.
It’s a female lead which barely has any other substantial characters, but what a role it is. The character goes by Isserley in Michael Faber’s original 2000 book, but Glazer stripped the text down to its bare bones for the film. It highlights the seldom featured predatory side of femininity, using sexuality as a weapon against men. It could be interpreted as punishment for the men who pursue her based purely on her attractive human form, but the story - while vague - makes it clear that there is an ulterior motive for her actions. The seduction and killing, while brutal, is not quite mindless.
It’s a fairly shocking film that lacks any substantial pause for breath or gearing down because of the way that tension is conveyed, even outwith the action scenes. As the character quickly moves from sexually aggressive murdering and devouring to casually driving around searching for another victim, the camera regularly rests on vulnerable looking individuals in her vicinity. By doing this, even in the most innocent of shots which would mean nothing in another film carry a great sense of trepidation for person the camera has chosen to linger on.
The visuals of the film are incredibly striking, particularly in the scenes of seduction where the men are lured to their deaths. Context is added each time and we eventually see how it is that the alien is physically consuming them and why. The contrast between brilliant white and pitch black in these sequences with Levi’s music is where the film strays furthest from convention and stereotype. Other than these scenes, much of the film is very simple and slow in terms of music, theatrics and cinematography. So a channel hop onto a late-night showing might be confusing as to the age classification and time slot until you are smacked in the face with an incredibly disturbing devouring scene where a casual sex scene might otherwise be.
In terms of scale of invasion, Under The Skin is tiny, but it’s also extremely personal. In ID4 or Mars Attacks when thousands of people are blown up in any given moment, there is a massive disconnect with the severity of the situation and the individual lives lost. There is no such disconnect here, we understand what these people are being dragged into and by the time we fully appreciate what is happening, we dread every second. Her victims are all men she comes across on their own but she isn’t picky beyond that, which makes her doings all the more sinister. Particularly a scene in which she picks up a heavily disfigured man.
Under the Skin’s greatest strength is its shock value, which is both way out of left field and shown in a very abstract way. It is a film that anyone who sees will remember, for better or worse, particularly for its truly unnerving closing sequence. It featured on end of year lists from many high profile critics and was lauded by The Guardian and the BBC as one of the 21st century’s best films. Yet it still failed to gain the attention of the major awards panels, most likely because it’s a little too abstract and out of the comfort zone that the idea of watching it again while entertaining, is incredibly uncomfortable.
Hidden in plain sight, Johansson, wearing pink finds herself in the highlands
Where to watch
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.