Jonathan Glazer is not exactly a prolific film-maker. Prior to Under the Skin, his films include Sexy Beast and Birth, both very unique films in their own right. Under the Skin however is something different entirely, and is not a film for everyone. On the surface it is a film about a beautiful extraterrestrial being awakening on Earth and collecting human males for some unclear purpose. In my mind it is to collect their skins for further alien visitors to disguise themselves with, but that is just my interpretation. The full motive is never made clear.
However, that is just the surface level. Dig a little deeper and you find a film that looks at people from the outside in, and studies the way we deal with strangers. Scarlett Johansson, in a riveting almost dialogue free performance, plays the alien in disguise. As she is on the hunt, we see how men react to her beauty at the expense of all else. It is interesting to see the reactions as stereotypical gender roles are reversed. The confusion that she emits when presented with crowds of women, or acts of genuine empathy, feel very real and create an arc for this seemingly distant character. Her experiences with human kind change her, slowly but surely.
The film is awash in hypnotic imagery, and long slow takes lull you into a false state of calm that make the film’s few shocking moments really jarring. Glimpses into what the captives experience are surreal and beautiful. When they take a turn for the grotesque, the image is all the more powerful for the beauty it is juxtaposed with.
As I said, the film is not for everyone. Those looking for a tight linear narrative will likely be left scratching their heads, and those who don’t appreciate film-makers like Kubrick who know the impact of a lingering shot will likely end up bored. However, if you are ready for a surrealist journey through the human condition, then I highly recommend this character study wrapped in a sci-fi skin.