In Review

Under the Skin

5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars - 'Outstanding - Starkie!'
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson
Drama, Sci-Fi. 108 minutes. UK.
"Outstanding - Starkie!"
An instant classic. Jonathan Glazer's poetic take on alien invasion is hypnotic, mesmerizing. And, yet, not even a single explosion!
Review by

Under the Skin gets under your skin, and doesn’t let go. But it wasn’t love at first sight mind you. The first time I watched Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi indie film, I was left scratching my head. What on earth? What had just happened? Why this, what that?

But the visceral imagery, mesmerizing score (Mica Levi), and, especially, Scarlet Johansson’s daring performance stuck with me for days. Glazer does all but completely throw out the rule-book when it comes to telling a story of alien invasion. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. And, yet, after the first viewing, I was left equally underwhelmed and dumbfounded.

So I gave Under the Skin another go. Then, oddly, I found myself viewing it, again and again. In fact — this was something I had never done before — I watched it on five successive evenings. I love cinema, and Glazer gives us such depth in this film that you can really sink your teeth into any aspect of its production. It’s delicious stuff.

When Johansson, an alien seductress, ensnares her first victim, a random street-goer who accepts a lift, the story begins its rhythmic descent into a world that, amazingly enough, looks just like everyday Scotland. In fact, as we know, it is. There are several featurettes and previews documenting how Glazer and his crew employed miniature cameras (discretely installed into various locations in a white van including several mounted directly into the dashboard) to capture both actors and non-actors interacting in real-time.

“Once you can’t see the camera,” said Chris Oddy, a production designer in one of the making-of videos. “We’re not a crew.”

Scripted elements were combined with real-life happenstance as Johansson randomly drives through the streets of various Scottish cities, flirting with locals. In one scene, she falls down (literally, on her face) while walking along a sidewalk. This is not a set. Glazer and his crew document the real-life reaction of those around her – alien or not, Johanssen is, at least for a brief moment, treated as a vulnerable human being.

That sidewalk scene is instrumental in the story’s progression. Walter Campbell screenplay, based on a novel by Michel Faber, does wonders with minimal dialog. Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the images speak for themselves. Yet the two films could not be further apart in style and execution; though both leave us asking big questions.

Jonathan Glazer and his crew installed several miniature cameras into an unmarked white van, then let them roll on the streets of Scotland. (Photo: A24 Films)

Under the Skin, no question, is an artsy take on the sci-fi genre. In a world of effects-laden Michael Bay blockbusters, it’s a welcome relief. Glazer wants us to turn on our brains. No scene is jackhammered. Rather, there is poetic beauty and steady patience – all wrapped in a creepy atmosphere, not unlike something we’d see in a Kubrick film.

I remember when Blade Runner came out in the early 80’s. In the wake of fan favorites like Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Ridley Scott’s nihilistic take on film noire was not exactly a prescription for mainstream success. Time, though, has proven it to be a classic. I suspect the same may be true here with Under the Skin. I expect this film to polarize audiences. Those that give it a chance may discover something truly special.

Follow Stark Insider on Twitter and Facebook. Join our 11,000 subscribers who read SI on tablets and smartphones on Google Newsstand. Prefer video? Watch us on Amazon Prime or subscribe to Stark Insider on YouTube, the largest arts & travel channel in San Francisco.
  • Henry Pratt

    This was the worst film that I have ever come across. The beginning is so dark that you waste at least five minutes just waiting. You cannot tell that she is supposed to be an alien. After picking up her victims she takes them to a room where the floor becomes liquid for the victims but not for her. There is absolutely no story to follow. So bad the we shut it off. A critic claims to have watched it for 5 nights in a row to be able to understand it. This movie makes it clear that the writer, director and everyone involved in making it should be banned from film for eternity. Minus 5 stars. Don’t waste either your time or money on it.

    • Brandyn Therwanger

      I agree fully with Henry Pratt. Terrible. Just pathetic. I have absolutely no clue what this guy Stark up here was talking about. He says the movie will polarize an audience. Trust me folks it’s more like mentally handicap them. After watching the film I just had to find out how bad others felt it was. Here I find this guy, no warnings that you’ll want to scream bloody hell half way through. Or that you’ll be left making SURE no one you know ever wasted time or money on it. I officially will never listen to a critics advice again. Scarlett Johansson is so hot and talented I have trouble believing this isn’t some sort of prank. The original book puts this movie to shame. As a matter of fact a month old dried op dog terd is more entertaining to watch. I actually read Under the skin by Micheal Faber. It was written elegantly and told an amazing gripping story. The only thing even remotely close in comparison is a girl who is in human skin and apparently isn’t human. I was really expecting so much more from this film. There really is no way of telling she is supposed to be an “alien” and makes absolutely no sense as to why people just melt into the floor. What is really pain staking about this film is how long each and every shot drags on for. Absolutely unbearable. Took me two days to finish since I had to turn it off the first night. I give this movie a minus 100. The only reason it wasn’t a minus 1,000,000 is because of Johanssons sexy ass and tittiess.

  • bobby miller

    This film was pure TRASH. One of the worst films I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a LOT of films. Just embarrassed to even admit I watched it. Only saving grace is a nude Scarlett. Other than that, don’t even waste your time.