In Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer is not afraid to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick. In fact, the second shot of the film is unmistakably a reference to the thrilling conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as we watch an unidentified man rush down a highway on a motorbike, and the lights shoot him by as though the audience were back in 1968, shooting through existential hyperspace for the first time. Glazer gets away with such an early and obvious reference to one of cinema’s greats because he brings so much of his own original flair to this work, and claims an unmistakable aesthetic ownership over each and every frame.
But it is when we look below the gorgeous surface of the film that we uncover its greatest qualities. It is there that we find its deep and empirical sense of empathy and humanity. The way it understands feeling, and the meaningfulness of being evocative. Glazer has to be lauded for the fact that Under The Skin, a film primarily about a sexually-predatory alien, is one of the most human films of the year.
Perhaps this humanity comes through, in part, due to the film’s exceptional casting. Scarlett Johansson’s alien has so much remarkable depth as the vessel for Glazer’s exploration of empathy, and it’s a depth primarily found in the actress’s flourishes. The first third of the film primarily features Johansson driving around in a van, picking men up from the streets of Scotland. The twist is this: many of these men are not actors, but regular folk whom Johansson has lured in with her overwhelming charm and sexuality. Eerie, when you consider what her intentions are for the men afterwards. Johansson has this way of asking people things, of stringing them on and opening them up. Of searching for some kind of connection, whether real or staged. What’s impressive throughout these improvisational segments is that we never for a second believe that she’s not her character. We, like the men she picks up, have no idea we’re in the company of a starlet. It’s a stunning work that showcases Johansson’s qualities as an actress, perhaps beyond anything she’s done before.
It’s a different set of qualities to her other works that are shown off here, for sure. Here, primarily, it is Johansson’s ability to detach herself from the emotion of a scene that shines through. Interviews with Glazer have featured him telling press that the actress barely recognised herself when she rewatched the footage of herself as the alien. This, like much of the film, is a curiosity and, to me, feels like an aspect that should be celebrated.
Detachment tonally frequents the film, and is certainly the aspect of it I would pinpoint as being the most evocative. In the beginning, when the seductress character lures all these men to their doom, she does not understand their pain. A crying baby, abandoned on the beach, does not warrant a second, or even a first glance. A man’s problems are something for her to smile briefly about: a mere tool for her to manipulate. It is in the lead character’s removal from every situation that we, the audience, come to feel so much for those Johansson leaves in her wake. We fear for those she exploits as we learn the further horrors she inflicts upon them. We feel so much for each situation on screen only because her character is feeling nothing at all.
Not to remain at all simple, the film flips this paradigm of detachment in the third act. Not to go into detail, but who we feel for, and where our attachments lie are drastically shifted by the film. And we, the audience, have to struggle with how we ourselves justify what we feel for those on-screen. There is a period of the film where this shift falls flat, however, and where the tone is too far deconstructed to be considered consistent with the rest of the film’s pacing. Even the striking cinematography and score are for the most part absent, or underwhelming. But then the concluding scenes bring back the rush of the film’s first hour, and it redeems itself without collapsing entirely.
Which is great, because the film has so much going for it. The minimalist aesthetic that drives it is stunning. Everything about the film, from its score, to its cinematography, to its plot absolutely screams “less is more”. Sometimes, all three come together at once to signal something to us (screeching violins, a dozen tracking shots focussed on single men walking down streets, a glance from Johansson). All of this signals exactly what’s going on, and with much simplicity. This is a film so focussed on its audience, and what we feel, that it doesn’t need to clutter itself with imagery—instead, Glazer allows the camera to often linger, and lets striking visuals repeat themselves throughout. And when we do get a busy frame, it is only in shots edited to be layered so shiningly that they transcend much of cinema itself. In that, Under The Skin is shocking, even when it’s being beautiful. Through its sexuality, the film defiantly explores our perceptions of people, and how we grow to understand them. Most importantly, perhaps, Glazer’s latest work is brilliant because it inspires us to feel empathy, and then sometimes dares to criticise us for doing so.