Under the Skin

Subscribe to Forte Magazine

Under the Skin

It’s been a long time since Jonathan Glazer’s last film (2004’s Birth) and he didn’t make it easy on himself with this one. Scarlett Johansson plays a woman – she’s clearly some kind of alien (the opening scenes are maybe a birth sequence), but exactly what kind of alien she is isn’t clear – who drives around Scotland in a van picking up and then hitting on male hitchhikers. To film this, Glazer had Johansson (wearing a dark-haired wig and speaking in an English accent) drive around Scotland in a van picking up and then hitting on male hitchhikers. The interactions are real (it’s safe to assume the later scenes with each hitchhiker, in which they’re taken back to her place to meet a bizarre fate, are fiction), and the way each one unfolds as she tries to lure them into the van then tries to find out if they’d be missed is a drama in miniature. But the real strength in these early scenes comes from the moments in between, where Johansson lets the life and humanity fall from her face to reveal the inhuman creature underneath.
As the story progresses she becomes more interested in the creatures she’s harvesting – a pivotal scene sees her gaze shifting from men in the street (who are her targets) to women (who are, in one sense or another, her equivalent) – and her gradual attempts to become more human (and less appalled by her human body) come to dominate the film.
It’s not the most original plot in science fiction – just about every alien that encounters humanity wants to become more human. But Glazer’s commitment to his story in purely visual terms – Johansson never has a real conversation about what’s going on with her with anyone, and many of the elements of her job are both beautiful to look at and utterly bizarre – gives this a haunting power rarely seen in cinema.
The story is a fairly simplistic one but the many small details build into compelling cinema. This is a film that will stick to you like glue.
Written by Anthony Morris