Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 science fiction film Under the Skin, loosely based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, stands among the most haunting and unique viewing experiences of modern independent cinema as well as one of its least credited. Glazer spent 10 years working on this modern spin in science fiction that features a mesmerizing performance from Scarlett Johansson, innovative achievements in sound design and score, and brilliant calibration in atmosphere by Glazer.
However, after its 2014 release to selected theaters in United States and United Kingdom, Under the Skin opened to commercial failure (collecting $7.2 million from a $13.3 million budget). Today, with the exception of the film community and being listed every now and then by film review websites and magazines (an example being Sofia Coppola’s listing the film among her “Top 10 Films of the 21st century” in a recent New York Times survey), Under the Skin remains virtually unknown to the average filmgoer.
Amongst the projects of a then smaller indie company A24, Under the Skin stars Johansson as an unnamed alien who arrives to the city of Glasgow in Scotland with an unspecified mission. Initially a femme fatale, wearing red lipstick and fur coats, Johansson’s character searches for lone male civilians to seduce in order to lure them back to her apartment – an abyssal, pitch black space – where they sink in black liquid and are harvested for their meat.
Throughout the film, the alien protagonist undergoes a transition towards a more humane, emotionally confused individual. Eventually, when she chooses to abandon her mission, not only are the roles of hunter and prey reversed, but it also brings irrevocable repercussions to the forlorn alien, which ultimately leads to her attempted rape and immolation.
This discussion does not aim to bluntly establish, much less set a bar for Under the Skin to be a masterpiece, but to discuss the sci-fi film’s unique qualities, both in technique and themes, while simultaneously underline why it deserves more attention from the average viewer. For purposes of clarity, we will refer to Johansson’s character as “Scarlett.” Enjoy.
1. Unique, Disturbing Atmosphere
The tides and winds foretell of an upcoming storm to the Scottish beach. As she waits for a swimmer to step on shore, Scarlett spots a family at the distance, seemingly enjoying their time. During her conversation with the swimmer, a potential victim, Scarlett straightforwardly asks him where is he from, and what his living conditions are, to which he responds awkwardly. Suddenly, screams are heard at a distance.
From Scarlett’s perspective (via long shots), we see a woman swimming, struggling against the tide to rescue their dog, the husband screams at her from the shore before he lunges to the water himself. The swimmer rushes towards the couple and manages to save the father, but the latter just rushes back again to rescue his wife. Meanwhile, an impassive Scarlett contemplates the incident. She walks to the swimmer, smashes his head with a rock, and slowly drags him across the shore while ignoring the couple’s infant child, who screams for his parents.
Alienating. Chilling. Unnerving. Impassive and relentless in its material, this scene encapsulates the qualities of Under the Skin’s dense atmosphere, as well as showcases Glazer’s masterful calibration between performance, cinematography, sound, music, and editing.
As an example of her performance throughout the film, Johansson is poised, nuanced, almost unrecognizable, being able to swiftly alter between insisting flirtations and vague sympathies, and an absent minded, calculative individual.
As it is evident in the couple’s struggle and drowning, director of photography Daniel Landin’s camera (music videos for Radiohead, Madonna, Robbie Williams) is cold, objective, filming the subject from a distance to invoke a notion of disturbance, ambivalence, and isolation.
Sound designer Johnnie Burn complements both image and motivation by leaving only the augmented sound of the waves overwhelming the couple’s screaming, creating an immersive experience for the viewer. Furthermore, composer Mica Levi underscores the scene with an sinister theme, whose coordination of a rough stringed violin and main triad strengthens Scarlett’s menacing presence to the unconscious swimmer.
The disturbing content of the scene, as well as the rest of the film has a permanent unnerving quality because of its exposition: its realistic, neutral, raw, and most importantly, it never lingers without purpose.
Keep in mind that Glazer spent roughly 10 years imagining, sculpting his vision in order for the film to blend ideology and technicality seamlessly. Lastly, it is only due to Glazer’s and the departments’ homogenous coordination that the atmosphere should be singled out alone before being unpacked to its elements.
2. Purely Cinematic Language
According to Hitchcock, “Pure cinema is the assembling of pieces of film to create a single idea.” Hitchcock referred to as Pure Cinema those films that take full advantage of the medium’s inherent capacity for motion capture, image juxtaposition, and sound design for storytelling, and Under the Skin does exactly that.
Glazer’s sci-fi starts off with a montage encompassing Scarlett’s birth into consciousness, her appropriation of language, donning of clothes, contemplation of an ant, and surveillance for male passersby through the Glasgow streets. Never does Scarlett verbally articulate that she is “searching for lonely men to harvest,” but the viewer watches and decodes the montage of male pedestrians as proof of the female alien’s intentions.
Opposed to dialogue, which consists solely of questions and answers as part of the hunter-prey dynamics throughout the film; character development, intentions, and conflicts are conveyed through the arrangement of cinematic elements. For example, a puzzled Scarlett confusedly watching the Tommy Cooper comedy on TV, her reasoning as to why there is blood on the rose she received, and particularly, the fly caught on the glassed door.
In terms of montage, Scarlett stops abruptly and stares at her reflection in a stained mirror, cuts to a fly trapped in the glass pane of the door, then lastly, cuts to a close-up shot of her eye reflecting the glassed door. This is a crucial scene as well as the turning point from which Scarlett abandons her mission. Not only does the viewer understands its impact, but is left to ponder: is the fly supposed to be the neurofibromatosis soon-to-be victim? Is it Scarlett? Or is the insect a representation of her newly acquired guilt?
Lastly, Under the Skin’s cinematic language calls back a past period when mainstream films depended on editing, montages, and image juxtaposition to convey their ideas. By tying itself to the medium’s language, Glazer’s sci-fi will remain both intelligible and accessible for decades to come, if not timeless.
Not because a film is considered purely cinematic, does it mean that it is better than films that are not, but Under the Skin takes full advantage of these traditions – the upward structure, malleability in interpretation, and its challenging material – are accomplished by stripping its source material to its simplest cinematic elements.
3. Kubrickian Imagery and Symbolism
Psychedelic lights. Symmetrically placed human meat grinders. Chilling and unsettling musical compositions, and odd, geometrically shaped cosmic objects. These are but a few of the Kubrickian tropes (adjective referring to that which is in the style of film director Stanley Kubrick) overflowing through Under the Skin. This is not say that Glazer imitates the late American filmmaker, which would be a disservice to the contemporary director, but it certainly helps to contextualize Under the Skin’s imagery and symbolism.
Similar to Kubrick, Glazer understands the value in constructing an enigmatic, ambiguous narrative through which its visual poetry gains its potential for multiple interpretations. However, whereas Kubrick’s dark and scientific realism would lead him to place and dissect his subject in a visually unfamiliar environment, Glazer does so by creating disassociation towards the reality we experience. Glasgow’s quotidian lifestyle is subtly subverted to appear otherworldly to the viewer, which becomes all the more disturbing.
Frequently compared to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey more often than The Shining, Under the Skin impassively blurs the line, both in image and ideology, between human anatomy and the artificial, and this is never more explicit than it is in the formation and recurrence of the alien’s eye throughout the film.
Similar to the numinous physicality of the monolith in 2001, the circular objects and its overlap to the extreme close-up of the eye’s iris, not only hints towards an inaccessible truth, but as the film goes to show, it remains perpetually hidden behind appearances.
The Shakespearian saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul can be applied to this context. The Motorcyclist’s inspection of Scarlett’s eyes, the fly trapped at the glassed pane, Scarlett’s aimless expression while riding the bus, all reflect Scarlett’s transition from a compassionless, calculative alien to a emotionally confused humanoid struggling to understand human behavior.
During the conclusion, when Scarlett is holding the face of her human skin in her hands, its eyes expressively staring back at Scarlett’s eyeless face, it epitomizes human nature, not Scarlett or her alien upbringing, as the incomprehensible matter trying to be deciphered throughout the film.