Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast , 2000), is not one of the world’s most prolific directors, but what he does produce is always noteworthy and of merit, even if it requires you to work with him. Under the Skin is such a movie. One of the first things to make itself obvious in the film is the use of light and colours, either the extreme whiteness (and also black) of her environment, an area without seems or borders, we see only light, or in the scenes of what we take as her lair, we see a dark void absent any obvious light source, or surfaces. The opening sequence takes us from the sterile bright white of an alien environment (or consciousness, we don’t know) to the dull, dreary urban motorway scenes of our aliens (we take the bike rider as being another alien) driving around mainly urban Scotland. While the picture painted by her travelling is not one of joy and happiness but rather a cold searching. The atmosphere, the scenery and even some of the people encountered along the way, are not the type that you would put on a “Visit Scotland” poster, they are real and ordinary with nothing much to sell them.
How long she is on the planet we don’t know, but she is able to drive a Transit van and communicate in flawless English (for what little dialogue there is in the movie). Scarlett Johansson (Her, 2013), play what is a challenging role brilliantly, her acting is visual, with little chance to add to scenes through dialogue. She seems “comfortable in her skin” or so to speak, yet she spends her days driving around looking for people who will not be noticed missing too quickly. As we see her driving it becomes obvious she’s is driving for a reason, she is hunting. Like a spider, she lures her victims to her, first chatting to them to get them in to her van and then into her “lair”. Her lair is a dark void, in the same sense of the white scenes were of a white void, with no obvious dimensions which swallows up her victims.
The film is almost silent, with any dialogue sparse and only as needed, at least 70% to 80% of the movie is non-dialogue. After the usual initial small talk we see her with her victims, back in the “eternal void” while we think we are used to the void, we see that there is more to it. Her mail victims never reach or connect with her, indeed as they approach her, they are subsumed into an liquid, best described as akin to embryonic fluid. She walks over it as if it is solid, it is only as her later that the realise that the liquid is a storage area, not visible from above, but from within. We are not told if this is her natural environment or some type of psychological analogue of what is happening. One thing you will notice is the cold emotionless performance by Johansson. We observe her from an emotional distance, we’re along for the ride, but not part of the experience. If you are looking for an action packed shoot-em-up, go look somewhere else, If you are looking for a lost Kubrick, then it will suit you perfectly. We are only allowed to observe this movie, always kept at a safe distance. As the movie progresses we get the feeling she is less familiar with her surroundings, or at least less comfortable, indeed the scene in the woods shows just how alien she is, literally and figuratively.
The dialogue, where it happens is clipped and pared back to the bare minimum, only used for what is needed. Indeed one of the movies pivotal parts is where here latest victim is descending in to the liquid and sees another older victim, now disfigured by his time in the liquid. Rather than recoil, the new victim makes his way to the other and without words they reach out and touch. The connection to the other, whoever they are is preferable to isolation.
One cannot help but wonder if the dark area and fluid, and even the bright white scene are her natural environment, the place where she is calm and safe, a place of isolation. Whereas out and about on Earth she is surrounded by dimensions, noises, colours, sounds and tastes etc. This environment is alien to her, just as her’s is to us. We also notice the difference in styles of person, the talking youths eager for her company, these are ordinary people, using ordinary lines, but still against her silence.
In some senses it reminds of (Upstream Colour (Carruth, 2013), the visuals are a significant part of the story, even surpassing the dialogue. We are also left to discover the movie as it progresses, working out the clues and interpretations as we move along. Aliens (in Earth based movies) generally fall into one of two categories, the big nasty evils one who want to destroy us, or the cute one, usually lost or homesick, Here we might have a mixture of both, or do we. We have a creature which looks like is will do no harm, but we know the skin she inhabits is not her own and like a spider, the males she beguiles are lured to her lair and trapped.
It is hinted by visuals that she is not alone and that there are other aliens, but this is never confirmed, such is the movie. This is not a movie to fill a wet Saturday evening, no you watch this only if you are willing to work at it and take in all it has to deliver.
This is a work which has been well assembled, superbly acted by Johansson with cinematography which not only compliments the acting but is a necessary part of the story, of the work. Not the easiest movie to watch, but not the worst by any measure, indeed it is one which rewards the effort.