In Michael Faber’s satirical 2000 science-fiction novel Under the Skin there’s never a doubt as to what is going on. An alien is sent to Earth by a business conglomerate to drug humans, then beef them up where they can be harvested and turned into meat for consumption. It was an alien form of factory farming, only the product was humans, not animals.
Filmmaker Janothan Glazer has taken this premise, stripped it of all narrative clarity and turned it into something of a minimalist art-house project where you kind of get the idea of what might be going on, but you’re never really sure, and the film is telling you nothing.
Scarlett Johansson is an alien being who takes the form of an attractive young woman then roams the streets of Scotland looking for men to seduce and kill. Why she’s killing them is never explained. There’s a single shot of what might be a flowing river of blood, flesh and organs running along a chute and disappearing into a void, but like everything else in the film, you’re never really clear.
The credits list the alien character as someone called Laura, though the name is never mentioned. The way the woman/thing goes about her business is to drive around in a van where she quietly observes the Scottish working class in the streets around her. Once a potential victim is chosen, she pulls up alongside, gives the impression she’s lost and asks unsuspecting men for direction. Why Scotland for its setting is unclear, and why an American actor playing an alien who speaks with a polite, southern English accent in a highland setting is also unclear. But then again, so is almost everything else.
“Do you have a family?” she asks, as if interviewing. “Are you by yourself?” The fact that she looks like Scarlett Johansson ensues that strangers will always respond.
In the 2013 Ken Loach drama/comedy from Scotland, Angels’ Share, the Scottish brogue was evidently considered too hard for an American audience to follow, so the film was subtitled. The characters in Under the Skin speak with the thickest of local accents in a naturalistic manner with no attempt to make themselves understood by those not familiar with the area, and there are no subtitles. You might catch a meaning here or there, but generally a Stateside audience is going to have trouble.
There’s an interesting turn when one of the alien’s victims – a lonely young man with extreme facial deformities – is lured into her lair only to escape. There’s a feeling that the alien has purposely allowed him to leave, but there’s never a moment where we see her taking pity on his condition and setting him free; we have to assume she’s let him go. From there, the alien studies her own human form in the mirror then goes into some form of depression and becomes catatonic, wondering aimlessly through the countryside, never responding to anything or anyone around her. Like everything else in the film, we assume she’s catatonic, though considering dialog is at a minimum, the condition is also difficult to tell.
There are times when the ambiguous nature of the 1976 Nicholas Roeg film The Man Who Fell To Earth springs to mind. You wonder if director Glazer was in some way attempting to capture that same sense of intentional vagueness of an alien on Earth with Under the Skin, only where Roeg’s movie was shot widescreen with brightly lit colors, the overall look to Glazer’s film is one of dull, grunginess where Scotland is portrayed as a place of perpetual clouds, wind, rain and fog and where the faces of local residents look pinched and hardened due to the continual cold.
The end result feels like a movie-making experiment; an exercise in mood and atmosphere while playing games with a traditional narrative structure but failing to make a cohesive whole in the process. Despite the acclaim it’s received in some quarters, particularly in Europe and in festival circuits, you’ll either love its style or hate it, there’s no in-between.
MPAA rating: R Length: 108 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)