Review: Under the Skin / Cert: 15 / Director: Jonathan Glazer / Screenplay: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer / Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan / Release Date: March 14th
Hollywood superstars tackling unusual roles, in arty films, perhaps shot in unusual locations too, isn’t anything particularly new. However, the usually glamorous and drop-dead gorgeous Scarlett Johansson dressed not too dissimilar to a lady of the night and driving around the council estates of Glasgow, in a crappy workman’s van, must surely take first prize in sheer WTF-ness? That she’s also playing a man-eating-alien-in-disguise is the proverbial cherry on top.
Director Jonathan Glazer has taken Michel Faber’s satirical novel, Under the Skin, and crafted a cult-classic-in-the-making sci-fi drama. It’s a very moody work of art that could well be as much a dissection of the concept ‘movie star as an otherworldly being’ as it is an existential fantasy about a visitor from another planet. Johansson’s performance is quite brilliant and toys with the creepiness and shallowness of the male gaze and accompanying desires in a way that give the narrative huge thematic resonance, even if some will struggle with a movie that demands your absolute attention.
The alien has clearly picked up lessons in Base Male Fantasy 101 by observing what is most likely to turn Earthling dudes on. So, the extraterrestrial ‘black widow’ appears in the guise of what looks like, well, a hooker. Appearances and deceptions not only propel Under the Skin’s narrative, they also inform the very casting of Johansson. To further enhance the sheer otherworldliness of watching a trashy-looking American actress wander around Glaswegian streets unnoticed, Glazer inserts what look very much like ‘stolen shots’. The alien might be noticed as a looker – by shoppers, both male and female, stealing a glance and caught by the camera doing so – but the electric frisson we feel is the breaking down of the fourth wall. It’s Scarlett Johansson in a city centre shopping mall!
The seduction scenes are funny, comically cruel even, and later on, during a chance encounter with a man suffering from what looks like Proteus syndrome, poignant. The blokes she kidnaps can’t quite believe their luck, in fact. They don’t stop once to ponder the utter artificiality of the scenario nor recognise their impending doom in the liquid chamber of a discreetly hidden spaceship (disguised as a derelict house). Minimalist and opaque it may well be, but Glazer draws surrealist humour from the material. Take a good look at the ‘men’ that assist in the ‘female’ alien’s mission to harvest food: they ride around on motorcycles, dress up in leathers and, most importantly, wear helmets with visors – they’re spacemen in plain sight!
Fans of mainstream sci-fi might not get on with Under the Skin. It is a far cry from the enjoyable romp that was Avengers Assemble (2012) or even Spike Jonze’s recent Oscar-winning dramedy, Her, which featured Johansson’s husky voice as Samantha, an operating system that gives Joaquin Phoenix’s sadsack character the tinglies.
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10