(Photo : A24)
Director Jonathan Glazer has never been one for convention. His first film "Sexy Beast" subverted the crime genre while his follow-up "Birth" brought a rather disturbing edge to the ghost story. Now the director has turned to the science-fiction film with "Under the Skin," a unique take on the alien invasion.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber (emphasis on the based since the film strays far from its source) the opening image of the film shows the formation of an eye underscored by eerie music. Moments later, the viewer watches a few people riding a motorcycle and picking up a dead body. In the ensuing scene Glazer introduces the main character played by Scarlett Johansson as she strips the dead woman and puts on her clothes. After that the film features her driving around in search of vulnerable men that she can seduce and capture for her race to eat.
Glazer does not provide much exposition and the result is a rather nebulous understanding of the aliens, if they can even be considered that. But the film ultimately strives for a far more nuanced perspective on not only what it means to be human, but what it means to have an identity in human society. The entire film is viewed from the perspective of the alien woman and her view of civilization emphasizes the repetitive nature of humankind. Shots of people walking up and down the streets, could be monotonous, but in themselves showcase the redundancy of the world. The journey itself is rather unique. The alien drives around constantly asking for direction and trying to find out the world of the people it is questioning. The lack of direction could imply the character's own lack of understanding of its purpose while the questions about the other humans' lives hint at the possibility that there is some concern and consideration for the people that the alien is preying; it only lures people that reveal their respective loneliness.
The seduction scenes are also rather unique in that they take place in a eerie black space and feature the alien constantly taking off "her" clothes; the male counterparts constantly reciprocate. These scenes initially seem repetitive in their execution, but Glazer imbues each with subtle differences. For example, in each sequence it becomes clearer that the alien must take off more and more close before completely capturing its prey. This not only reveals the inner turmoil of its central character but manages to create more tension. After each of these sequences, the character stares at itself in the mirror, almost questioning its humanity and identity. The film slowly builds in this fashion for its first half before the alien finally makes a major decision and starts to attempt to fit in with the human world; the film really picks up visually and emotionally from this moment forth. In one scene, the alien attempts to eat a piece of cake. Glazer frames the cake in a high angle close-up to show how the alien slowly picks up the slice with its fork; as it brings the cake to its mouth, the camera pans slowly until the food enters the alien's mouth. The scene has tremendous tension due to the slow and deliberate pacing and the ensuing reaction is rather jarring. Another powerful moment features the character finding blood on its hands, a potent image that emphasizes the conflict between the character's increasing humanity and its predatory past.
Glazer also plays with the concept of the hunter and hunted, particularly in the film's second half when the alien becomes the object of desire by other sexual predators. It is in these chilling final scenes that the film's structural mastery comes to the fore. Arguably the most potent scene of the entire film features the alien coming face-to-face with a deformed human being. The impression on the viewer upon seeing this character is rather shocking as he looks like an alien; their subsequent conversation reveals that he is in fact treated as such by the rest of the human race, thus subverting the viewer's perspective completely. This scene is chilling for how it confronts the notion of what it means to be human. Is it appearance? Is it personality? Is there even a difference between humanity and the extraterrestrials?
The film moves at a glacial pace, but the alienating effect aids in seeing the film from the extra-terrestrial's point of view. Scarlett Johansson carries the film with one of the finest performances of her career. She does not say much, but she does not need to. Her stare is rather cold in the early scenes, but there is a glimmer in her eye that is alluring. However, as the story develops, the viewer notes a subtle growth of vulnerability. The coldness remains throughout, but she slowly builds up the emotion like a lengthy crescendo that at its apex completely blurs the lines between the alien and humanity itself. One of the best scenes in the film comes at the crucial moment where the alien makes up its mind. Johansson stares at a mirror and remains fixed on it for a while, but her eyes dictate the inner turmoil and contradiction the character is experiencing. The scene is subtle and quiet, but it is filled with intensity underneath.
The other major character in the film is Mica Levi's brilliant score. The music is filled with a wide range of instruments and effects that permeate the entire film; the viewer almost feels like the music is almost an inner monologue for the alien and a means of communication with her kind. The grating sounds alienate the viewer, but maintain the character's POV in perspective as a result. During one scene, the alien seems ready to engage in sexual behavior with another human. The music in this scene begins with a hymn-like melody that has none of the customary dissonance that dominates the rest of the film. However after the first few bars, Levi introduces a disturbing dissonance that grinds against the nirvana-like theme.
The film's plot is extremely-well crafted when it pertains to the central character. However, the peripheral world is not as well-conceived, especially when it comes to the alien race. There are a few characters that ride motorcycles and are seeming patrol guardians for the race. However, their involvement in the film's big climax is rather senseless and ultimately pointless. There seems to be an attempt at creating tension, but the lack of information or understand makes their involvement confusing and incomprehensible.
Ultimately "Under the Skin" is a highly intricate experimental narrative from a visionary filmmaker with one of the best performances in recent memory by Scarlett Johansson. Those expecting more conventional fare will undoubtedly be put off, but those willing to try something new will come away altered and fascinated.