Most alien movies follow an invasion blueprint: they take a human point of view as humans and aliens make contact, then examine the differences and weaknesses of the extraterrestrial until it can be explained or defeated (or not). Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and loosely based on the novel by Michel Faber, takes the opposite approach. The movie sticks closely to the perspective of an alien visitor, and, in turn, it’s human behavior that’s placed under scrutiny and comes across as otherworldly.
It’s not that we know much about the the extraterrestrial homeworld. The film begins with a female alien (Scarlett Johansson) taking a human form, which goes by Laura, and wandering the streets of Glasgow, Scotland. She’s followed by an equally mysterious male on a motorcycle (real-life motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams). There are few, impressionistic images of her origins, but no explanation of her intentions. The question of why she’s there is never answered.
Instead, we follow Laura as she drives around the streets of Glasgow in a van, luring and seducing men into her orbit, often to their detriment. For these scenes, Glazer uses a series of non-actors in largely improvised environments; the van is outfitted with up to ten hidden-camera setups.
The result of these conditions—regular people having unscripted conversations in a natural setting without cameras reminding them they’re being filmed—should be naturalistic. However, they don’t entirely feel this way. While these scenes do feel authentic, Glazer heightens the action beyond the typical found-footage-style documentary. His images are more beautiful than something you’d expect from dashboard cameras. He also sets the scenes to a discordantly beautiful score by Mica Levi. You can feel the disconnect between Laura and the rest of humanity; everything feels distant and unsettled.
This is largely to the credit of Johansson. She’s capable of telegraphing both seduction and isolation simultaneously. She connects with the men she meets on the street, but you can tell that there’s an emotional disconnect. While there is dialogue throughout the film, Johansson is essentially giving a silent performance. The words that pass between her and the men are of no consequence to the arc of the film; they’re just to get the men in the van. The emotional core of the story—which comes more and more into focus as the film progresses—is almost entirely advanced through Johansson’s face.
And just because Laura remains emotionally distant from humans, it doesn’t mean that Under the Skin doesn’t pack an emotional punch for the viewer. Without giving away too many details, there’s an utterly devastating moment that clearly demonstrates her lack of attachment to children.
Throughout the film, Glazer underlines Laura’s journey with some show-stopping visuals. The film begins with images of circles slowly moving into alignment (and that Levi score pumped to full volume). The circles slowly resolve into a human eye, with Johansson’s disembodied voice practicing English words. It was striking to look at; festival reviews (that were later trumpeted in the film’s trailer) wondered if Glazer was an “heir to Kubrick.” It’s a self-aggrandizing comparison, but not entirely uncalled for. More importantly, that scene communicated everything you needed to know about the premise of the film—that there’s an otherworldly presence taking the form of a human—without a single second of spoken exposition.
If there’s one criticism to be found in Under the Skin, it’s that it might be too enamored of its own process. The cycle of Laura’s approaching a man, seducing him into her van, and the consequences that follow repeats itself too often throughout the middle of the film. Eventually, the cycle changes as Laura learns more about life on Earth, but too often the same scenario repeats itself before the changes become evident.
Under the Skin thrusts its viewers into this cycle without much explanation to give bearings, and starting off-balance adds to the ambiance of the film. But if behind-the-scenes explanations are necessary, the Blu-Ray release offers plenty of supplemental material that unlocks all of the aspects of the filmmaking. There’s no commentary track, but a series of featurettes addresses the camera setups, casting (Glazer, a music-video director himself, says he wanted Johansson after seeing her in a video, presumably for “Falling Down“), editing (which explains how they dealt with more than 200 hours of that hidden camera footage), locations, music, poster design, production design, script, sound, and visual effects.
These features do give interesting insight into the unusual production of the film. But it’s definitely a more moving experience to go in blind, and see a moody human/alien contact movie where the humans are the ones who are inscrutable.