One joke about Jonathan Glazer’s third film is that it plays like alien-sex-fiend sci-fi Species (1995) with added pretensions. But actually it doesn’t. From another angle, it looks more like the arthouse answer to Avatar: Avatar inverted to make life on Earth seem strange and new, instead of imagining strange, new life out there.
The comparison/contrast sounds facetious. But there are precedents for this kind of artful (even if accidental) flipside to the major sci-fis of their day. Andrei Tarkovsky’s psychological sci-fi Solaris (1972) was seen by many as his humanist answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just before George Lucas found the Force, Nicolas Roeg and David Bowie made us see American life’s peculiarities through alien eyes in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).
Glazer’s dark adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel is his finest film. But he honed his flair for refreshing familiar turf in his other films. Sexy Beast (2000) made the British gangster film look new again, partly through the genius casting of Ben Kingsley kicking Ray Winstone’s flabby ass. Birth (2004) reinvented the melodrama and made us reconsider Nicole Kidman’s glacial poise. In Under The Skin, Glazer’s radical moves scramble expectations to make Earth, Brit-flicks, sci-fi and Scarlett Johansson look new to us.
The broad plot curve looks like Avatar through an arthouse glass darkly – and not just because it begins with an eye and ends with a forest fire. An alien (Johansson) visits Earth to, it seems, help procure a naturally occurring resource. In order to do so, she has to mingle with humans and put temptation their way. The strategy works until a tender encounter sparks feelings in her for our indigenous life forms. At this point she goes ‘native’, and is pursued both by humans and someone who might either be her boss or ‘familiar’.
See the comparison with Cameron? But it’s what Glazer does within this frame that distinguishes Under The Skin: he strips cinema down and rebuilds it from the ground up, so that the film, its world and its inhabitants seem to form themselves before our eyes. The abstract opening images involve light, darkness, eyes – basic film ingredients. Then Glazer lays acting bare: we watch as Johansson dresses for her job, puts on a woman’s skin and ventures into Glasgow’s murky corners to seduce lonely men.
In Faber’s book, she (named Isserley) procures men for meat. The film keeps her (unnamed in the film) purposes ambiguous, all the better to emphasise subtext and emotion. But there is something distinctly abattoir-like about the scene where a victim is sucked into a pit of black gloop and, without giving too much away, deprived of vital parts. Johansson’s den of death is strange meat indeed.
Yet what amazes most is the way that Glazer makes Glasgow look strange, Clinton card shops, tenements, alien landscapes and all. Mica Levi’s score helps, skewing sci-fi motifs into bizarre, skin-prickling directions. Visually, Glazer and DoP Daniel Landin experimented with mini-cameras (take that, 3D!) so that we share Johansson’s POV as she observes people going about their day, a pitch that makes humans look odd even before we’re shown Tommy Cooper on telly.
The results may sound too abstract, too detached to engage on paper. But Glazer judiciously folds in human ingredients to concoct an alluring flavour. Essays will be inspired by the dashes of dry, self aware wit at play in the idea that ScarJo could walk among and watch us unobserved, after millions of admirers have worn out their DVD pause buttons watching her.
Responding to the attention with her most fluent performance, Johansson shifts the laconic self-assurance of Black Widow towards a kind of steely ambiguity. And then she almost visibly unravels as she meets a disfigured man (Adam Pearson, an actor with neurofibromatosis) who moves her in surprising ways. In turn, her fresh-blooming empathy provokes viewer empathy for her.
True, a sharp cynicism spikes Glazer’s vision. Here, humans drift like atomised zombies towards the poster promise of ‘A Play, a Pie and a Pint’; a rose-seller’s thorn-bloodied hands go unnoticed; lace curtains are closed to violence witnessed outside the house opposite. That blood-curdling mindset extends to some nightmare-haunting images (steel yourself for the baby…), but Glazer’s balancing hints of hope for humanity touch us all the more for the sense of distance elsewhere.
Glazer is searching for new ways to express and explore the extremes humans are capable of, no less, from personal sacrifice to psychotic misogyny. Along the way he reminds us that, removed from the kinds of CGI-scapes that can sometimes look prosaic, science fiction can still surprise us. Put another way, Avatar 2 will have its work cut out to startle like this unsettling, unexpected and tantalisingly elusive genre twist.
No chat track, no behind-the-scenes footage and no Scarlett among the extras, but 10 featurettes rigorously unmask each aspect of production in five minutes or less, without getting soundbite-y.
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