For a film that features Scarlett Johansson as a skin-stealing alien seductress, there’s nothing remotely titillating about Under the Skin.
Based on a book by Scottish immigrant Michel Faber, it’s Jonathan Glazer’s first film since Birth back in 2004. Best known for Ben Kingsley crime thriller Sexy Beast, it’s clear that, despite the lack of output, Glazer has spent every minute of the intervening decade maturing as a director. Under the Skin is the result.
Though superficially about the aforementioned alien seductress harvesting the organs of unwitting males, Under the Skin is truly a thesis on human connection. Johansson’s nameless protagonist watches dispassionately as a married couple drown, one reaching for the other.
Later, though, she shows affection to an unfortunate soul who has no expectation of kindness. She may be an inhuman predator, but Johansson also comes to stand as an unwitting ambassador for humanity.
Under the Skin is leisurely, full of lingering shots of crowds and roadways, and almost perversely naturalistic; even featuring a large number of non-actors. Johansson is an alluring but remote presence, charming and detached with roving eyes.
It’s a bravura work of cinema from Glazier, one that, almost uniquely among science fiction films, owns nothing to the rest of the genre, though it’s remoteness and desolate beauty out Kubricks Kubrick.
Most of all, though, Under the Skin is intriguing. The motorbike riders that appear throughout stand as a potent motif for isolation, one to a vehicle. Johansson’s van, meanwhile, has room enough for two, but her companions are soon enough swallowed up by the agenda to which her appetites are in service.
It’s a shame therefore that the final five minutes of the film proceed to set that careful thesis on fire – vicious, punitive, and utterly lacking in insight; the camera panning up, following the smoke up into the sky, leaving nothing left of the delicate work that’s come before.
In the end, though what’s more human than imperfection?