The most daring, experimental work to come out of British cinema for quite some time, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is concerned with viewing the world through an alien lens, examining humanity from a distance that makes it seem strange and unknown. The story of an alien sent to earth to seduce and destroy men, any description of its premise is laughable in the face of the resulting film – abstract, sinister, largely wordless, and balancing scenes that have a realistic, almost kitchen-sink feel with ones that are hugely stylised and cinematic, it is a grand statement on what it means to be a human being. It’s the story not of an alien seductress, but of a being that goes from looking like a person to feeling like one.
The need to strike a balance between realism and surrealism defines Under the Skin. The film opens with a series of images, mere suggestions of alien structures and machinery as the sound design becomes thick with wordless voices and the first burblings of Mica Levi’s colossal, terrifying score. It’s a birth scene of sorts that introduces us to the film’s “alien” world as something unnatural and largely unknowable – something that carries over into Scarlett Johannson’s character in the film’s first half, driving around the streets of Edinburgh picking up men. Her actions and facial expressions are shockingly cold and unfeeling, culminating in the scenes in which she offs the men she has picked up in a highly abstracted black room, terrifying in just how successfully Glazer manages to make it a space utterly devoid of humanity.
So it’s remarkable how much other scenes are so full of life. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin used state-of-the-art hidden cameras to shoot many of the film’s on location scenes – the people of Glasgow in the film are by and large the actual real people of Glasgow, just going about their lives. In the film’s most stunning sequence, images of these average people are laid over each other one after another until the screen is filled with a glorious golden visual cacophony, a symphony of ordinary experience. The alien world of Under the Skin may be terrifying in its lack of humanity, but it wouldn’t make such an impact if it weren’t for the intense realism of the human world that it depicts.
It is this study of humanity from the perspecitve of an outsider that becomes the film’s focus. I’ve spoken to many that felt the film lost its way during its quieter, more contemplative second half, but it is here that the film really begins to examine what makes a human being a human being. Johannson’s alien embarks on something of a voyage of discovery, and while she may initially think human experience boils down to eating chocolate cake and tapping her fingers to music, Glazer knows better, focusing on small moments of small sympathy and compassion that make the world a shared, communal experience. What separates the aliens from us, it seems, is the fact that by being a human being means being part of a community. Perhaps this is why the film’s final moments take us to the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands, a natural world that marks a stark contrast with the cold alien world of the film’s opening and is stripped bare of anything but an alien trapped between world, unable to stop herself feeling but equally unable to connect with the world that surrounds her.
It’s remarkable that Under the Skin is based on a novel by Michel Faber, as the journey it takes us on is so cinematic, so concerned with the act of looking, of viewing the world, that I’m amazed it could work in anything but a visual medium. The impact it will make remains to be seen, and I’m sure there will be a fair few people who hate it for its willful abstractness, but those who click with it will find a beautiful, terrifying monster of a film.