Under The Skin (2013) Directed Jonathan Glazer

Each week that passes feels like another drain on the compassion tank. I don't mean so much my own feelings but humanity's interest in caring for one another. We have developed an amazing capacity to turn on each other. Even in cases of desperation or where someone seems to be experiencing hardship we're not feeling sympathy or supportive. Generally we find annoyance (and heaven forgive if it somehow intrudes on our own space). A great example being the recent story of Jimmy Thoronka that was published by the Guardian. Some of the public comments that accompany the article sadly demonstrate the lows we've reached when it comes to caring for our fellow humans. Many people may think that Under The Skin is a sci-fi movie with the primary focus on its central alien (played brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson), but for me this film's central observation is the human race. This is Scotland through alien eyes.

Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin
Jonathan Glazer certainly takes his time over his films. Birth (2004) and Sexy Beast (2000) were a long time ago. Yet every film Glazer releases at least raises eyebrows and brings out strong reactions from people, Under The Skin is no exception. People have either claimed the picture a masterpiece or pretentious. I'll just say at this juncture the film really worked for me. It's been a long time since a movie stayed with me many days after watching it. Under the Skin does this. Rather like its seemingly chatty, rather inane and blank central character, Under The Skin draws you into its world and doesn't let go. Echoes of Stanley Kubrick and especially Nicolas Roeg (and The Man Who Fell To Earth) are felt here. But don't let that take away from Glazier's achievement. This is original and distinct filmmaking and such an antidote to Hollywood's gaze. Johansson's performance is not only brave but strikes the right sense of unconnected discovery.

A lot of Under The Skin sees Scarlett driving a White Transit Van
Just after watching Under The Skin I went back to David Cronenberg's The Fly, a film in itself that could be billed as alluding to sci-fi and horror genres. The Fly really seemed to set the bar high at the time (it was still good, though a little clunky) and I feel Under The Skin could usher in a new era for both genres. The horror and disturbance certainly do make up part of Under The Skin's experience, but it's counterbalanced with a picture of loneliness and trying to fit in. It's possible that after slowly acclimatising to passing as a human, Johansson's alien is merely looking for some love (like the rest of us). Glazier's picture of Scotland is realistic and grim. You feel the lack of warmth from these streets, which only enhances the appeal of Johansson's approaching alien. The metaphor of using an alien to show how unwelcoming we can be is never overstated. This really is the best thing I've seen in an age and I can't recommend Under The Skin enough.  Cult status for this picture is assured.

Most of the time I watch films that are predictable, average, there to comfort or there to entertain in a specific pre-planned manner. I watch movies to experience things that are not possible in my life and I watch them to feel something – or to feel nothing. Under The Skin is the exciting kind of film that I only come across some rare times. It inspires, moves me in my tracks and leaves me changed. I am still in awe of the simple daring and imagination this film oozes. I am in love with the mix of Hollywood and Scotland; with how the cheaply made film plays with our imagination about who Scarlett Johansson is and with the landscapes and people of Scotland.

A scene from the film
It is a space movie filmed entirely on earth, with no interest in explaining the usual 'where did they come from?', 'how did they come here and why?'. The aliens in this movie simply act like animals and humans: they eat and kill to survive. And sometimes their curiosity gets the better of them. Sometimes the camera wanders. Sometimes it rests on details. The perspective is not the usual camera-as-human-eye. And at times the storytelling is more in the way of theatre, but with no sets.
Another scene with no set from Under The Skin
Gender is more than a strand here. It's a major theme. The vamp-like alien lurks and kills men, leaving women safe. She borrows a woman's body to pass for a human woman, but she does not behave in a human way – mostly, she does not feel like humans do. Yet, during the course of the movie she develops a desire to experience sexual pleasure through her borrowed being. She also falls pray to human sexual violence. So many questions, so many beautiful scenes, so much tension.
Under The Skin could be deemed as a cruel film. It was certainly uncomfortable viewing at times. Still, it is important right now. Who is the other? Who am I? Is there a difference? This movie is cinema as poetry, but not really pretentious at all.


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