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 Clinton Stark

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.

Clinton Stark
Clinton shoots videos for Stark Insider. San Francisco Bay Area arts, Ingmar Bergman and French New Wave, and chasing the perfect home espresso shot 25 seconds at a time (and failing). Peloton: ClintTheMint. Camera: Video Gear