If an alien intelligence were inserted into our midst, what would it make of us? And, if it looked like us, might it eventually begin to develop thoughts like a human being?
Many a science fiction film has delved into just these sorts of philosophical questions in the past but few have done it with the rigorousness and the sheer gravitas of British cinematic visionary Jonathan Glazer in UNDER THE SKIN.
The film begins with mesmerizing imagery as a type of alien intelligence is born or brought into being, and which eventually takes the form of a woman (Scarlett Johansson). After a quick stop at the mall for some clothes and makeup she begins to move freely about the cities of Scotland—mainly at night—in a white van.
She is cruising, or hunting, for men, who seem to satiate her thirst and to be the object of a sort of vampiric inner need. Let’s just say that once she brings these men home they may be expecting a night of bliss but end up having to deal with something else, something which resembles a large mass of black ooze (!), as well as the mysterious, leather-clad motorcycle rider (Jeremy McWilliams) who operates as the woman’s keeper.
Business is good for the woman and the motorcycle man until she hears a child’s scream for the first time and later meets a young man so outcast by society that she is jarred into being, so to speak. She begins to regard herself in the mirror, developing a conscience—or something like it—in a series of encounters which recalls Jacques Lacan’s “mirror moment” of psychological development. She flees her handler and randomly heads towards the mountains where things begin to fall apart quickly, and the film hurtles towards a brain-melting, yet oddly peaceful, conclusion.
By turns kinky, hypnotic, chilling, and hilarious, this is a freak-out of a movie which recalls past collisions of art, horror, and eroticism, like Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, and the films of Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, but does them one better.
Additionally, the film knowingly winks its machine-like eye in referencing the works of Kubrick such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and THE SHINING, but in its meditation on the nature of human identity its closest antecedent is perhaps John Frankenheimer’s woefully under-appreciated paranoia-fest SECONDS (1966) (wherein bored and buttoned-down career man/drone Rock Hudson is kidnapped one day and given a new face—and a new life to go along with it!).
Johansson deserves credit for taking on such a difficult role and making it her own. The film derives much power from her hesitant, alien-like responses to things such as human gender roles or the taste of food. With her bedraggled mop of black hair and cheap clothes—a ratty fur coat, tight, acid-washed jeans, and a pair of fur-lined and heeled boots—she is put through the meat grinder in a way which recalls another suffering cinematic female: the character played by Emily Watson in Lars von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES. The film’s other star is the landscape of Scotland itself, which is depicted in a range of moods, from the grey ugliness of urban decay to the serene and quiet beauty of the mountains.
The film’s cinematography and sound design are superb, adding much to the film’s strangely off-kilter register. Parts of the movie were reportedly filmed with hidden cameras and the use of non-actors and this definitely rings true. Many of the film’s early sequences with Johansson meandering about in public are given an especially creepy and unnerving edge due to their detached, “surveillance camera”-type feel. But equally important in this regard is the score, written by British experimental pop musician Mica Levi, whose discordant sounds and strains will haunt the memory.
Director Jonathan Glazer’s (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH) profoundly visual eye is well on display here, such as in the beautifully dreamy sequence toward the end when the woman takes a nap in a mountain cabin: the next shot is of the mountain’s swaying trees seen from above and an image of the recumbent female is superimposed over it, alien and nature for the moment fusing as one. There is something so subconsciously disturbing about this film that it is hard to tear one’s eyes away.
If you want to know what contemporary movie will be blowing peoples’ minds thirty years from now, what film teenagers and young adults will be staying up late at night to watch and discuss, look no further: cult movie of the future, thy name is Under the Skin!