‘Under the Skin’ reinvents sci-fi tropes to dazzling effect

Under the Skin

Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

UK, 2013

An alien life form comes to Earth disguised as a beautiful woman, to prey on unwary human males, seducing them and luring them to their doom. Nine times out of ten, a premise like that of Under the Skin would produce a crass, low-brow skin flick, psuedo-porn masquerading as science fiction. But director Jonathan Glazer seems to know this, and has performed the same bait and switch as the alien in the film, luring audiences in with the promise of eroticism and dropping them unawares into a disorienting, frightening landscape. But unlike the poor saps of the film, victims of Glazer’s seduction will come out with their internal organs still safe and sound in their body cavities, and a truly unique film experience to reflect on.

Under the Skin, quite intentionally, plays on a lot of tropes. There is the beautiful, otherworldly femme fatale who coldly stalks her victims before growing a conscience and discovering the joys of food, music, and of course, love. Of course, this prompts intervention from her seeming “handlers”, a group of sinister men on motorbikes. It feels like something we’ve seen before in countless B-level sci fi features, and the film is aware of this. During scenes of Johannson luring some poor fool to his doom, Mica Levi’s score will even descend into wailing violins that harken back to the warbling, spooky theremin scores of 40s sci-fi films. But just as much as Glazer wants its audience to feel familiar with the story, he also seems intent on proving just how differently he can tell it.

Under the Skin 2

With Under the Skin, Glazer reveals himself to be a master of nonverbal storytelling. Almost all of the information needed to understand just what is happening is communicated to the audience through visuals and acting. It is almost entirely devoid of exposition, and when one reaches out a hand for some guidance or understanding, the film seems to look back with a cold lack of sympathy. A lot of this comes from Daniel Landin’s starkly beautiful cinematography, which can make normal objects seem abstract and paint beautiful tableaux of the barren Scottish landscape the film is set against. Just as much comes from Scarlett Johansson’s performance, which is undoubtedly the most understated of her career. Her dialogue for the most part is incredibly minimal, and she carries most of it with simple facial expressions and body language.

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Knowing the details of the production makes Under the Skin an even stranger experience. Johansson is the only professional actor in the film, the rest of the cast being non-actors who were initially unaware they were even in a film, their initial conversations captured via hidden camera. This lends the film a distinctly voyeuristic quality, a sense of unease as the alien prowls the streets of various Scottish cities, picking up unsuspecting victims and silently observing passing people with the same cold dispassion as the camera itself. It feels about as far from Hollywood as possible, really, an odd blend of verite and something approaching surrealism.

While Under the Skin is easily a triumph of acting and cinematography, the storytelling is what one takes away the most. Glazer has succeeded in taking a very straightforward, staid sci-fi premise and telling it in a new and interesting way, dialing down the details, exposition and soft science and plugging in a brooding art-house mood. Although it has many virtues, especially when it comes to formal qualities and execution, its best seems to be its ability to make the old seem new again. Under the Skin takes tropes and scenes sci-fi fans have probably seen countless times over and makes them feel fresh and interesting again. And in a film climate as seemingly mired as much in repetition and cliché as science fiction currently is, that seems like nothing less than a miracle.

— Thomas O’Connor


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