It’s rare for a film featuring one of Hollywood’s surest-fire A-listers to feature in equal measure the varying locales of Scotland’s own Glasgow. But, in Under The Skin, director Jonathan Glazer indeed marries a chilled Scarlett Johansson with murky Glaswegian locations to produce what is a mesmeric and disturbing science fiction feature.
Johansson plays an extra-terrestrial, revealed at the film’s opening to be using the identity of a dead Glaswegian woman, Laura, to take her place in the city as a cover. The bulk of the film consists of this alien trawling the streets of Glasgow in a white van, searching for vulnerable and solitary men to seduce and entrap in her lair, a terrifying ocean of black oily liquid. As the film progresses, we realise more about the alien’s means for survival, and its comrades in the city, before Johansson’s alien begins to feel compromised by her proximity to a humanity she doesn’t know whether she can join.
Some of the film’s strongest moments are embodied in its deliberate contrasting of hard sci-fi with almost documentarian ordinariness. The opening sequence, of what could be a cloning process, a spaceship, or any number of things reminds of the balletic grace of some of the 20th centuries’ greatest sci-fi opuses, but the white van Johansson travels in is a continual reminder that we’re in Glasgow here. As she looks for men who fit her needs, Glazer mingles footage of genuine bystanders filmed by hidden cameras in the van with that of actors who know who they’re talking to. Whether the actors are brilliantly natural or the strangers perturbed, it is hard to tell the one from the other, and this feels interesting but not necessarily worthwhile. The ad-lib natures of these sequences are believable in a way that is certainly off-putting, but also in a way that reduces some of the film’s fictional weight. It is hard to remain invested in the fact that she is an alien when Johansson is politely small-talking with what may be a totally unknowing Glaswegian.
That said, Under The Skin is superb in a number of other areas. The soundtrack by Mica Levi is wondrous, with distorted sounds and ominous beats punctuating a multitude of unsettling moments, and does a marvellous job of adding suspense to already tense scenes. So, too, the directing and shooting from Glazer and Daniel Landin is impressive, with areas like the Scottish highlands rendered all the more mesmerising by shots that have clearly waited for the right weather, be it swirling icy mists over a loch or clear orange sun in Johansson’s face as she drives.
It is worth noting that even if Under The Skin does not realise all of the potential its raft of great reviews has pointed to, it is still the sort of film one does not see too regularly in mainstream cinemas, and thus, arbitrary though it might seem, is eminently worth paying for. It will challenge and disturb most viewers, and importantly will leave its audience with further questions about the world it has built. Confusion is always better than boredom.