Under The Skin failed at the box office, in spite of the presence of megastar Scarlett Johanssen, but succeeded in critical reaction for two very good reasons: it stands out from the crowd and it captures the attention.
This is a truly eerie and haunting minimalist sci-fi movie played out with long periods of virtual silence against an equally eerie score (courtesy of Mica Levi), one that warrants a view from even the most cynical of movie buffs.
The premise is just as simple: an alien assumes the identity of a woman in order to prey on men around Glasgow in a van. The ones she picks up assume they are destined for a casual sexual encounter but once naked in a black space they are subsumed beneath a pitch-black liquid.
At one point we see the men, naked and still alive, suffering a torture beneath the surface before being drained away to who knows what fate; the very silence is unnerving. That is but one moment that would not look out of place in Eraserhead, a movie that certainly spooked me out the first time I saw it, because what happens is beyond your standard frame of reference.
You could equally compare some scenes to 2001 for that matter, but it combines sequences that are surprisingly sensual and others that belong firmly in the horror genre. However, we can be grateful that it does not take as its lead Species; although not dissimilar in concept, UTS is way superior in every way.
Sound bizarre? All the strangeness is brought firmly back down to earth with cinematography of Glasgow (largely at night) and the Scottish countryside, plus native Scottish lingo. It’s to the credit of director Jonathan Glazer, not only that he maintains a coherent narrative with minimal dialogue, but also that most of his actors are amateurs and apparently improvising their words.
None of this would be to any avail were it not for the mercurial Johanssen, an actor whose sheer presence makes all things possible. The eye is naturally drawn to her, and not merely for her beauty either. On this occasion she achieves a rare feat of being naked on screen repeatedly but without any element of prurient sexuality dominating the scenes. In other words, a very sexy actress does not exploit her nudity, though it is used as a bait to trap lonely and horny men.
The scene where she captures but lets go a young man with a facial disfigurement is remarkable for its poignancy, and would have been nothing like as effective were she not naked. They are both different, a common bond that warrants empathy – an empathy notably lacking when she leaves a baby crying on a beach, for example.
The theme is unquestionably the human race seen through the eyes of an alien observer, much like the everyman Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, or to choose a more modern example, Malcolm MacDowell‘s Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson‘s O Lucky Man.
The ending is equally poignant, as we see the woman with her human skin torn off and a lithe black torso and head leaving her truly exposed in the woods. The reaction of the nearest human being? To try to rape her then, when she is defenceless, to burn her to death. The allegory to the treatment of the weak or unique did not go unnoticed, by me at any rate.
This is a notably superior sci-fi movie and worth feting. That is is quiet and creepy rather than loud and brash probably contributed to its box office downfall, but it is certainly one justified in earning a cult following.