Under the Skin, the new film from Jonathan Glazer, has received rave reviews in certain quarters, many proclaiming it to be a masterpiece. Personally I think that’s overstating the case a bit, but it’s certainly a highly singular, disturbing, divisive work that will no doubt enthral and infuriate in equal measure.
The plot – such is it is – concerns an alien disguised as a woman (Scarlett Johansson) who stalks lonely, single men in Scotland, luring them to a grisly and decidedly baffling demise for reasons that are never explained. Then she starts to develop an interest in what it means to be human. Sort of.
This highly flimsy premise is saved from being an artier version of naff 90s sci-fi flick Species by Glazer’s astonishing direction, as well of his eerie use of music and sound. Brilliant camera angles employ every inch of big screen space, particularly in some stunningly conceived long shots depicting the rainy Scottish landscapes. In addition there are many other extraordinary directorial flourishes; from the deeply weird opening to the frankly extremely unsettling sequences involving the seduction of Johansson’s various victims. There are a couple of moments so nightmarishly distressing that even I found them difficult to watch. I haven’t seen scenes of such hellish weirdness for quite some time – or at least, since that “rope” scene from A Field in England. At least you know where you are with blood and gore, but this? The pervasively dark, oppressive atmosphere throughout means bad dreams are all but guaranteed.
All of which will turn off one audience and turn on another. Certainly not everyone will want to view such a slow, surreal, deliberately paced film with such spare use of dialogue – not to mention the fact that events are seen entirely from the point of view of a murderous alien trying to make sense of human culture. I should also add warnings about sex and nudity, though whilst it was shocking, none of it felt particularly salacious.
What’s it all supposed to mean? I have absolutely no idea. In the end, I suspect this is destined for cult status. It will be shunned by many audiences for being too avant-garde, but serious students of cinema and horror fans who relish Lynchian weirdness will find Under the Skin gets under their skin.