Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) – Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is one of those visually stunning, brain-tinglingly complex, and deeply disturbing science fiction movies that were all the rage in the 70s until Star Wars. It’s an art film that never feels like homework and proof that there’s still audacious and original work being made that blurs the line between art house and genre cinema. It’s a project that Glazer has nursed along for almost a decade since his last film Birth (he also directed the brilliant crime movie Sexy Beast) and is loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber about an alien being who comes to earth and assumes the role of a beautiful woman to rather easily pick up men as part of a bizarre experiment. So, it’s an alien story about alienation with our heroine struggling to figure out how humanity works. Glazer’s film follows the most basic beats of the concept while finding all new ways to alienate and fascinate his viewers.
Scarlett Johansson stars as the alien being in question, and the scenes in which she drives around Glasgow picking up men were rather ingeniously shot on hidden cameras so the audience never certain whether they are watching an actor or a civilian co-starring with Scarlett. Whenever she catches her bait, she brings the men back to a mysterious house and the inside appears to be an endless room of darkness where a stripping Scarlett pulls the men into a mysterious black pool that sucks them up. The entire film is gorgeously shot and stylized by Glazer, but these sequences are on another level that creates an overwhelmingly intense atmosphere out of ingenious minimalism. The film splits most of the running time between these two types of sequences, but gradually the dazed Johansson tries to connect further with her foreign surroundings, only to always seem even more lost than her captors.
It’s an experimental film and a rather extraordinary one. The most obvious influence hanging over the project is The Man Who Fell To Earth with Glazer recreating the visual and narrative (or anti-narrative) audacity of Nicolas Roeg’s 70s sci-fi experiment in a style all his own. Johansson gives a chilly and effectively underplayed performance, while the mixture of non-actors and professionals suit their roles well. At a certain point Johansson’s character abandons her mission to find piece in a quiet country town while being pursued by an unnamed alien partner on a motorcycle. It’s only here almost an hour into the movie that a narrative starts to take shape. In a weird way, the last act frustratingly breaks the trance of the purely experimental first hour while also not offering enough narrative closure to bring the movie home in a comfortable and conventional manner. Something about the project doesn’t quite hang together, but thankfully that’s not nearly enough to kill the movie’s overall impact.
Glazer has created a truly original vision in Under the Skin. It’s a terrifying, evocative, intelligent, and genre bending cinematic experience that demands to be seen by anyone who enjoys off-kilter cult cinema. The fact that it never quite comes together as a whole is frustrating, but also somewhat of a genre staple for this brand of head-trip cinema. When Glazer fails in the film, he fails on his own singularly bizarre terms and produces something that’s still captivating. Perhaps the filmmaker spent a little too long over-thinking this project, but at least each individual idea and sequence offers something of interest that feels like no other movie.
That evocative style that Glazer fawned over plays exquisitely on Blu-Ray. The antiseptic and at times painfully clear cinematography the director employs positively glows in HD, while the shadowy and unclear imagery proves to look as crisp as possible. Even better is the ominous and enveloping sound design, which has been captured beautifully. With the right home theater equipment, the uncompressed audio pulls you into the movie and adds a vital layer to Glazer’s storytelling. It’s an absolutely gorgeous technical presentation. As for special features, you’ll get 43 minutes worth of making-of featurettes broken up into ten segments. They’re all short, mysterious, informative, and episodic in a way that mirrors the film. You’ll come away from the featurettes with as many questions as answers and I’d imagine that’s exactly what Jonathan Glazer wanted.
Hopefully Glazer doesn’t need another ten years to mount his next project, because with only three features under his belt the director has become easily one of the most singular filmmaking voices working today. Now he just needs to add productivity to his glowing resume. (Phil Brown)