Director Jonathan Glazer has turned Michel Faber’s novel into a weird and wonderful low-budget science fiction film. Alien Scarlett Johansson seduces the menfolk of Glasgow and despatches them to a disturbing soundtrack of screechy strings and white noise.
The film opens with a pinprick of light, gradually morphing into eclipsing globes and, finally, an eye, as frenzied violin scraping turns into a stuttering voice. We are utterly disorientated, so it comes as a relief when we see a motorbike on a Highland road. The biker eventually dismounts, goes into a grass verge, then reappears with the limp body of a woman over his shoulder and puts her in a van. This is the human form that Scarlett Johansson’s alien will inhabit.
In a long wordless sequence she goes shopping for a fake fur jacket and puts on lipstick. We see Glasgow’s streets through her alien eyes and hear the world as fractured noise, experiencing the sea of human faces in a fresh and unsettling way.
It is fascinating to watch Johansson cruising the mean streets of Glasgow in her van, chatting to strangers and offering them lifts in an English accent. She is completely unselfconscious and at ease with herself. At no point do we think, ‘she’s a glamourous Hollywood actress’. A remarkable aspect of Under the Skin is that many of the people who appear in it aren’t actors. They’re normal people, who happen to be walking down a road minding their own business when Scarlett Johansson pulls up alongside them and offers them a lift to Tesco. It must have been a genuinely alien experience for them.
In a film with very little dialogue, the longest exchange occurs when Johansson picks up a young man with a deformed face. She is tender towards him and compliments his ‘beautiful’ hands. Is she becoming more human? The man seems to escape the grisly fate of her previous ‘clients’. Later on she responds to the kindness of an older stranger. Though blank-faced throughout, Johansson gives a compelling performance. She is no Stepford Wife robot.
Some people will be baffled and annoyed by the film’s lack of conventional narrative. Why is the alien killing men? Why is she in Scotland? Who is the mysterious biker? Is he an alien too? But in the end it doesn’t really matter. We go with the flow. The editing is fast and the film doesn’t dwell on much beyond Johansson’s face and body.
There are some extraordinary scenes. On an Arbroath beach a woman tries to rescue her dog in the rough sea and her husband goes in after her, while their toddler cries his eyes out from the shore. It is harrowing and realistic. Johansson observes them without expression, as snatches of digital fingers-down-the-blackboard noise ratchet up the tension.
The alien’s victims end up in a dilapidated house. In a stylised catwalk-type sequence they follow Johansson as she discards her clothes, while her victims sink into a dark liquid limbo. In one scene the viewer is immersed with them and we see a previous victim cast off his skin like a mayfly, leaving a billowing husk behind.
The ‘horror’ elements of these scenes are offset by the artistic visual and sonic flair with which they are presented. This is a long way from being a slasher movie. Johansson may prey on young men but there is no malevolence in what she does. It is a tribute to her acting skills that she imbues the alien with soul as well as grace. She can also suggest humour, as when she watches Tommy Cooper bungle a magic trick on television- her face twitching in an effort to compute the weirdness.