A woman, who looks an awful lot like Scarlett Johansson, pulls up next to you on the street corner in a white van, asks for directions, proceeds to somewhat flirt with you and asks you to come along with her in finding her destination, what would you do?
That is one of the central questions in director Jonathan Glazer’s new warped mind-trip sci-fi film Under the Skin, based on Michel Farber’s book of the same name. I’ll start with saying it’s best to go into this one without any knowledge beforehand about it; avoid any reviews (except this one of course), trailers and interviews to not spoil any of the story, plot or characters going into this, so I won’t delve into details. I’ll just say that Johansson whose character, along with the other cast members, is never named is much more than meets the eye and not of this world. She continues with her recent trend, from last year’s excellent Her, of great performances in thought-provoking sci-fi films.
I’ll instead concentrate on the way the movie was made, as some are probably aware of the movie was an exercise in reality cinema with hidden camera’s around the actor capturing real people’s reactions. According to both the director and producer, very few people recognized one of the most popular movie stars in the world in the middle of Glasgow, Scotland. Many of the scenes are therefore improvised by the actor, remarkable in and of its self in the ability to mold a narrative around that concept. The reactions of the people around her are genuine not rehearsed beforehand, adding more to the foreboding atmosphere that anything can happen from scene to scene.
Indeed, this resembles a work by David Lynch or even (dare I say?) Stanley Kubrick much more so than your typical everyday sci-fi movie. Imagery, sound and performances all combine to form a visual puzzler of a narrative. The environment presented is palpable and heavy, nonetheless there are moments of levity in the being’s awkwardness fitting into our world. Indeed, there are just as many moments of sheer horror (one such scene at the beach in particular is an excruciating exercise in dread and despair) as there of humor in her engagement and interactions with the humans around her (the regional accents are ludicrously hard to decipher in some instances, in effect we are hearing what it is like being an alien in an unfamiliar world). The director and his actor both navigate many severe tonal shifts to great effect throughout the film.
To reiterate the overall theme of mystery, that of not knowing where the story was going, dialogue is sparsely used between the characters. The dialogue that can be heard, as previously mentioned, doesn’t provide much in terms of explaining the plotting either. Thus much is conveyed through visuals and sound editing and mixing. Bringing us to the scoring by Mica Levi, which is just as much a character as Johansson’s creating a unique mood. An eerie blend of harsh strings, reminiscent of the siren’s song from greek mythos. The lead character continues this ancient legend to horrifying results in a modern setting.
Glazer made a critical splash with his first feature Sexy Beast all the way back in 2000 with a career-best Ray Winstone as a retired mobster who can’t quite shake off his old ways. He then tackled the depths of a lover’s remorse in the Birth, which split both critics and audiences alike with its almost taboo-breaking handling of a relationship between a 12 year-old boy and a 35 year-old woman. Under the Skin is bound to equally divide viewers as well, with it’s portrayal of female sexuality. Nonetheless the director seeks to always ask “what would you do?”; when a someone from your past outright demands that you do one last thing to come out of the doldrums of retirement, when you lose a great love then is seemingly reincarnated in a younger form, when a gorgeous woman asks you flirtatiously to get into a van.
As an ardent fan of sci-fi, it is a great joy to see a recent cinematic renaissance in the genre. With the new-age philosophical Her, gut-wrenchingly tense Gravity (along with the similarly constructed underseen Europa Report) and emotional powerhouse of Upstream Color last year; furthermore with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar due out later this year, sci-fi is making a triumphant return in thought-provoking cinema. As with all movies of this style and direction, many questions will be asked afterwards and as always I don’t have all the answers. Some will feel this film’s reach exceeds it’s grasp, that there is no grand message or story to be derived from it, and they wouldn’t be completely wrong in that assessment. This is a mood piece designed to evoke an emotional visceral reaction from it; as with any work of art, that is an achievement in and of its self.
The very beginning sequence of Under the Skin pays homage to one similar in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Starting right-out-of-the-gates comparing your film to Kubrickian standards is a dangerous gamble, but one here that does immense justice to the maestro, and there is hardly any other higher compliment I can give a film.