October 16, 2021

Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer and Scarlett Johansson’s Scottish Alien Film

As I walked out of the screening of the latest film to be called Under the Skin – there was a well received one by Carine Adler in 1998 – I overheard a girl talking to her friend.

‘I didn’t get any of that,’ she complained. She wasn’t the only one. The thing is, I’m not sure there was anything to get.

2013’s Under the Skin is directed by Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer and is based on the novel by Michel Faber. The story follows a female alien who is driving across Scotland. How did the film ever get past the stage of someone saying ‘Shall we make a film of this book?’. When the idea was first mooted someone should have firmly said, ‘No.’  It did take nine years to make so presumably there were some dissenting voices, but eventually it has been made and has had its European premiere at Venice.

Scarlett Johansson stars as the alien, in a black wig and bright red lipstick. It is a role that requires her to look surprised and, for reasons unexplained, entice men back to her big oily lake. If you have seen Richard Wilson’s 20:50 installation at the Saatchi gallery then you have seen the sort of thing she has at home. She deliberately targets people who are lonely and won’t be missed, as once in the lake they will be subject to computer manipulation. In the book there is more to the story, but here there is no reason for anything that happens. She actually puts in a good performance as the other-worldy alien, uncertain what is going on – but unfortunately the audience is uncertain what is going on as well.

The other main character is a man who zips about on a motorbike, wearing racing leathers and generally easing the alien’s way through the world. His role is deliberately unclear. Maybe this could have been an interesting short film. But 107 minutes is a long time for not very much to happen.

Afterwards the director spoke of how the themes were love, sex and death, all seen through the eyes of someone who finds earth an alien place. To that end he says he is happy that the Scots accents are hard to understand, that they add to the sense that Johansson’s character does not know what is going on. But on screen she is able to converse perfectly, it is just the audience that is left unclear what has been said.

When it is so difficult to get films made, it is eye-opening to see which projects are chosen. Under the Skin has financing from Film4, the National Lottery and bfi. When public money is involved a film should have more value than this, which slowly tells us that an alien might have problems living as a human.

Verdict: Well-shot, but drawn-out. For fans of Scarlett Johansson.

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