NZIFF – Under the Skin
Science fiction doesn’t come much more appealingly lo-fi than Jonathan Glazer’s slow burn creeper Under the Skin. Despite touting a Hollywood A-Lister in the (unnamed) lead role—a mesmerizingly flat performance by Scarlett Johansson—the film shares more cinematic DNA with abstract sci-fi thrillers such as Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow or Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color than with the more approachable sci-fi fare like The Avengers or even Spike Jonze’s Her.
An alien being made-up to look like an attractive human woman Johansson’s character traverses Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside in a nondescript van, using her sexual allure to pick up socially disconnected men. She takes these men back to her ‘place’ from whence they do not return. A film in two parts the second act sees Johansson’s ‘being’ struggle with self-doubt and spiral out of pattern to the chagrin of her mysterious handlers. Adapted from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name Glazer and co. pare down the complex multi-themed philosophical investigation to its bare bones quite successfully, if necessarily obscuring some of the themes in the source material. The film plays out an aliens’ eye view of humanity as some kind of renewable resource resulting in some truly chilling moments (one involving a crying toddler) due to the apparent coldness of the perspective. This sense of ‘otherness’ is built upon Johansson’s finely graded performance and some excellent editorial work. In scenes where she is picking up men, natural feeling conversations are matched to odd non-diegetic scoring and intercut with moments of internal processing that suffuse the whole affair with an off-kilter tone. Combined with a measured pace and effective use of light and sound Under the Skin maintains a cold underlying tension which never lets you get comfortable. It’s worth noting that many of Johansson’s interactions are shot on hidden cameras with non-actor locals and hence have a truly candid sensibility to them.
Music for the film is managed exceptionally well by first time cinema composer Mica Levi who matches the visual tone to a tee with her dissonant strings and layered drones—very important in a film often devoid of dialogue. The filmmakers aren’t afraid of silence or only diegetic sound at crucial junctures either. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin—making good use of his background in abstract music videos for the likes of Massive Attack, Björk, and Radiohead—work together to create an arrestingly spare tableau of bodies and shadows blending the abstract visual simplicity of the aforementioned Beyond the Black Rainbow with the sharp contrasts of Upstream Color. The film loosens its grip somewhat in the second act with the change of narrative direction, and subsequent visual tone, but the craft and thematic inquiry remain solid enough to see you through to the end. Some have commented on a pro-feminist reading of the film due to the sexual politics at play but I came out a little uneasy at what could be read as an action-consequence structure (beautiful girl uses sexuality to prey on men, is then subjected to an attempted rape). This uneasiness is mitigated to some degree when you contextualise the film in the broader thematic scope of the novel and bring the science fiction elements to the fore. Despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) these thematic challenges Under the Skin proves a worthy follow-up to Glazer’s Birth (2004) adding a strong entry in the compendium of smart independent sci-fi cinema.
Rating: R13 Horror, nudity, and violence.