Nothing will prepare you for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. In a curious extreme left turn, the director follows 2004’s Birth with this mind-meltingly abstract, defiantly unconventional feature, as if he’s spent the last nine years watching science fiction films, got fed up of the whole bloody formula, trashed them all into the bin and vowed to make something as singular and fiercely anti-commercial as this. Michel Faber’s haunting source novel serves only as a diving board to all the head-fuckery Glazer perpetuates here, stripping the material off its prose and let the imagery speak for itself. Had Glazer’s approach been a literal adaptation, this would have ended up as another run-of-the-mill, snooze-fest sci-fi you could predict in your sleep, but this very bold choice of using imagery, sound and mood as conduit to a visual-aural experience makes Under The Skin totally immersive, often startling in its hypnotic minimalism and riveting inscrutability.
The deliberate obfuscation here will no doubt put off many, making viewers ill-at-ease. My patience, for once, is tested dutifully. Many of the story’s elements were kept in the shadows, especially the central character’s prime motivation of luring hapless men into her voluptuous clutches and her procedures of how she dispatches them. Glazer avoids any of these easy interpretations and he also refuses to spell it out for you – which is just refreshing when most films you see these days need to throw the alphabets on your face just in case your head is incapable of delineating things for yourself. What he focuses on instead is the journey of Scarlett Johansson’s near-silent, glassy-eyed drifter and her transformation from being the film’s antagonist into protagonist. This nameless woman (in the book she’s called Isserley) is a figure steeped in the film noir genre – a femme fatale surreptitiously manipulating virile men, using sexuality as a weapon. Roger Donaldson’s Species, that mildly distracting 1995 sexual sci-fi with Natasha Henstridge almost naked in every scene, may be a reference point, but Glazer seems to gravitate towards Kubrick here. Watch the first ten minutes of this and not think of Kubrick. It’s impossible to miss the heady influence.
Existentialism, female sexuality and male emasculation are a few of the film’s readings, which Under The Skin will surely raise a few debates about. But in the latter half when Johansson’s cold, blank gaze slowly unravel a curiosity and deep mournfulness, we clearly see the film is trying to raise issues about human empathy and profound alienation. That we see the film through the perspective of this enigmatic interloper with a morally dubious mission only leads us to discover the vast complexity of our own humanity, from kindness to downright wretchedness. A feat so strangely yet beguilingly put forth by Johansson’s elusive and multi-layered performance. It’s been a while since she had a role to hold her own, but it’s impossible to think of any actor who could show a lot by almost saying nothing. Her otherworldliness, in juxtaposition to the docu-realism of Scotland’s environs and its inhabitants, even her mock-London accent when she flirts with men, is mystifying. And when Glazer drops the drama and goes full-on surreal, the result is an inky black magnificence that’s jaw-droppingly trance-like. I doubt there’s a more original sci-fi film you’ll see this year than this.