Jonathan Glazer’s new film has just come out on DVD, which gives me good enough excuse to bang on about just how great it is. During its time on the big screen, in March and April, Under The Skin became a film that split its audiences down the middle. Simultaneously applauded and booed, depending on which screening you were in, its slow pace, unsettling mood and jarring images were either seen as impressive or annoying. Either way, there is no denying just how downright weird the whole experience happens to be. You’ve probably already guessed which side of the fence I’m on.
The film is set around an alien disguised as a voluptuous woman, played voluptuously (of course) by Scarlett Johansson, sporting a black wig and an English accent. Throughout the film, Johansson’s wide eyed alien stalks the streets of Glasgow, picking up men and leading them towards a pretty grim fate. There you have the basic synopsis of the film, but its plot actually explores tonnes of themes – humanity, sexuality, gender roles – through its central character’s objective, uncaring extra-terrestrial eyes.
In an intelligent power switch, Johansson is a woman hunting men. She picks up unsuspecting, lusty folk who can’t see past their own libido, and brings them back to her lair (or whatever you want to call that mysterious black space). It is an intelligent switch, because it opens up a discussion about sexual stereotypes and sexual politics. It also happens to end with a deeply ironic and thought provoking twist.
It is not just sexuality that the film sinks its teeth into – to focus only on that side of the film is to miss the bigger picture. Humanity as a whole is put under observation. The film watches humanity through the eyes of an outsider, seeing all of its intricacies, oddities and flaws for the first time and putting them on screen in a completely dispassionate, disinterested alien manner. Its main character is a stranger on a strange world, and we observe what she observes.
To reinforce the concept of an alien observer, much of the footage was filmed in Glasgow using hidden cameras, with Scarlett’s alien roaming the street right under the nose of the general public. This gives the film a genuinely unsettling atmosphere and makes it almost entirely unique. The vast majority of the people on-screen are not actors, they really are being unknowingly looked at. Seeing the folk of Glasgow unwittingly go on with their day to day lives makes you aware of yourself watching them and observing them, an experience which is really rather creepy.
Actually, creepy is the perfect word to use for the experience of watching Under The Skin. The imagery is creepy. The atmosphere is creepy. The landscape of Scotland is creepy. The whole film feels alien, disjointed from anything comfortable or recognisable, yet set in an environment that is actually very familiar to us. It gives the film that jarring and unsettling tone that it obviously strives to achieve, lending an alien eye to the boring day to day routines that we all know.
What exactly is it that we observe? Drunken louts taking over the streets at night. Thugs attacking vehicles. Injustice and a lack of empathy towards those who are different. And, of course, plenty of amorous men. It’s not all doom and gloom though. We see the brighter side of humanity too. This film is a mood piece, that plays out like an intense hallucination. It is ambitious, big-minded and has a lot of ideas that are very cleverly played out. It is also dark, haunting and full of images that are likely to plague you for a long time to come. Get it, watch it – hate it or love it.