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With his third feature, Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer creates an unsettlingly intimate and boldly original sci-fi masterpiece. Starring Scarlett Johansson, the film follows an otherworldly woman who prowls the streets of Glasgow, preying on the unsuspecting men whom she seduces. From this deceptively simple premise, Glazer and his team create less of an alien invasion story and more a chilling vision of Earth as an alien world, a perspective of ourselves that is at times curious, at times malevolent, and utterly enthralling throughout.
Our planet and the humans who inhabit it are rendered completely foreign under the camera’s drifting yet omnipresent eye. The production’s extensive use of hidden cameras to capture footage of Glasgow’s residents creates a cinematic gaze that is both coldly objective and disquietingly voyeuristic. The ridiculous and endearing idiosyncrasies of the modern man are exposed in the unwitting subjects that build out the cast. This, combined with Johannson’s understated performance, a considerable departure from her Hollywood headliner roles, grounds the film’s extended “prowling” sequences in meticulously uncomfortable realism.
Glazer, along with co-writer Walter Campbell, also deliberately eschew the expected narrative structure. The film unfolds with minimal information afforded to the audience, most of which is gleaned from visual storytelling and enhanced with auditory cues, rather than traditional verbal exposition. This untethering effect is enhanced by masterful sound design that renders the sounds of humanity as coarse, menacing and overwhelming; layered voices become rushing waves more likely to unnerve and overstimulate us than to provide us with any greater insight into the characters who should be our peers.
Throughout, the film’s visual language cuts a stark contrast between the awkward and unpredictable chaos of humanities’ masses and the beautifully glacial sterility of the aliens’ world, all of which is excellently highlighted by composer Mira Levi. Her minimalist, ambient score submerges Under the Skin in enchanting sonic ambiguity. Was that the sound of someone breathing or a low-pitched, floaty synth? String instruments or the whirring of some strange otherworldly mechanism? Muted, pulsing percussion or approaching footsteps?
Not only does this further detach the audience from their expected points of connection — it draws them into further identification with, or at least interest in, Scarlett Johansson’s mysterious “Laura.” Johansson’s performance initially seems to resemble a horror-tinged science fiction extrapolation of the classic cinematic femme fatale, seducing men to their doom with her inviting exterior and ambiguous motivations.
However, despite its graphic content, Under the Skin never veers into objectifying or even erotic territory in the visual or textual treatment of its characters. The film’s nudity is abject, unembellished, and utterly sexless. Its unconventional treatment of a familiar premise allows Under the Skin to both subvert and unpack contemporary gender dynamics.
There is a notable, and fascinating, disparity between the Glaswegian men’s excitement at Laura’s apparent sexual availability and the audience’s awareness of her burgeoning introspection. As the film progresses, in uncanny tableaus of hunting and observation, Laura becomes less of a deadly alien seductress and more of an unmoored entity grasping for meaning and purpose in a strange world, among strange people.
This surprising compassion does not negate Under the Skin’s tightly wound tension and persistent atmosphere of sinking dread. The climactic scene in which we discover what exactly awaits the men Laura has managed to lure away employs imagery that is frightening and visceral enough to rival that of more bombastic sci-fi horrors such as Event Horizon, Alien, or Fire in the Sky, while another infamous scene, set at a rocky Scottish beach, presents a painfully effective encapsulation of the indifference of nature to human tragedy.
Under the Skin excels in its ability to walk this line, between identification and alienation. Gender, sexuality, disability, empathy, immigration, and existentialism are just some of the monumentally complex ideas that the film grapples with. However, Glazer’s visual storytelling and enigmatic implementation of themes prevents it from becoming overwhelmingly cerebral. Ultimately, Under the Skin is asking what it means to be human and, in doing so, showcases the best and worst impulses of humanity, all through the terrifying eyes of its natural predator.
Under the Skin screens starting Thursday, January 11th.
Thursday, Jan 11th – 8pm
Saturday, Jan 13th – 7:30pm
Monday, Jan 15th – 8pm