Scarlett Johansson prowls Glasgow for unwary strangers in Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror Under The Skin – a film that leaves a sour taste, says MacDara Conroy
In Michel Faber’s 2000 debut novel, an alien called Isserley prowls the Scottish Highlands for hitchhikers; lonely, unwary souls who meet a grisly end to satisfy the demands of an other-worldly populace with a taste for human flesh. It’s a familiar premise in science fiction – aliens harvesting humans for food is as tropey as it gets – but the book at least uses it as a basis for black satire, exploring issues surrounding factory farming and environmental destruction, and capturing that early-noughties Fast Food Nation zeitgeist.
Jonathan Glazer’s moody adaptation of Under The Skin, apparently a decade in the making, dispenses with most of Faber’s story and pointed social commentary, even stripping the main protagonist of her identity. The version of the character played by Scarlett Johansson has no name, and no definitive origin (she could be an alien, or a clone; it’s never quite made clear). Her first appearance on screen is naked in a featureless white room, stripping the clothes off a woman pulled dead from a roadside by a mysterious handler/fixer in motorcycle leathers so that she may skin herself with the deceased’s earth-person uniform.
We then follow this nameless emissary around Glasgow, from a generic shopping centre where she passes among the proles to a white van that she drives around the city and suburbs, soliciting single men at the curb for directions in a posh London accent and enticing the most suitable (no friends or next of kin is a good sign) into the passenger seat on the pretext of a quickie back at her place. Thing is, ‘her place’ is a black void of a room with a floor that becomes a tar pit under human feet, consuming these horny beggars for her superiors’ indescribable purposes (indescribable because the film never gets around to describing them).
And that’s pretty much it for more than half the running time. ScarJo drives randomly around Glasgow, picks up a ned (these men are nearly all underclass laddish types), lures him to his doom. Cue a dialogue-free static or tracking shot, perhaps of moving traffic on a motorway or a grey, lonely vista that shows the director’s seen some Kubrick or Tarkovsky. And repeat.
With so little story to work with, then, it’s what we see that invites comment, and it’s not pretty. I’m not just talking about the stereotypical grimness of northern Britain as depicted through the lens of cinematographer Daniel Landin, like the director a veteran of the music video world. Or even one particularly cynical scene on a rocky beach that seems purely designed to upset on a primal level (parents of young children be forewarned).
The film’s main conceit is the juxtaposition of an impossibly beautiful, voluptuous sexpot amid the dowdy common folk. ScarJo’s an alien in Glasgow in both senses of the word, geddit? But it’s a semantic trick played at the expense of real people (much of the walk-about/drive-about footage was filmed with hidden cameras). Glazer appears to delight in flashing from shots of our lead’s denim-hugged arse to wrinkly norms at the make-up counter. And the men she encounters on the streets of Glesga are all non-professional actors, cast for the verisimilitude of their greasy-palmed reactions in her presence. But what’s the aim of all this if not the direct equivalent of poking fun at gypsies or ‘benefits scroungers’ on the telly?
It leaves a particularly sour taste in the mouth, as the film plods along from episode to episode with no narrative drive or dramatic tension other than that derived from Micachu’s unsettling score, the film’s lone saving grace, which lends an ominous hum to otherwise banal situations like waiting at the traffic lights.
It’s not till the final reel that Glazer shifts the tone to explore the ruggedly beautiful, harsh landscapes of Faber’s Scottish setting – the windswept loughs and fog-blanketed heathlands – and a proper story strives to take form, even if it’s of the cack-handed Man Who Fell To Earth variety. Johansson’s anonymous man-eater suddenly sprouts a conscience, you see, and decides she wants to experience earthly delights, which for her amounts to getting lost in the rural lowlands, failing to eat a forkful of black forest gateau and being taken in by a creepy/kindly bachelor figure, before some more random stuff happens and it’s over. Fin.
The immediate impression left on this critic was of wannabe Tarkovsky nonsense with serious class issues to boot – but hey, ScarJo gets her kit off, so that’s grand? Hardly. It only gets worse in hindsight, as Under The Skin clearly carries over some of Glazer’s unseemly depiction of women from 2004’s love/stalk story Birth. Johansson’s blank-slate lack of identity here is even more restricted than Nicole Kidman’s woman-as-property Anna in that metaphysical creep show. And don’t even get me started on the deeply unsavoury rape-as-repentance notions of the film’s climactic scenes (you don’t need to know what occurs).
Fair enough, some of that is arguable, though it’s Glazer’s deliberate ambiguity that leaves him open to such charges. What can’t really be argued is that his third feature continues his trend of tilting the balance towards style at the expense of substance – like plot, or a point. On being subjected to Under The Skin‘s two hours of undergraduate provocation, it’s hard to believe 2000’s stylish-yet-smart crime flick Sexy Beast is the work of the same filmmaker.