Under the Skin is not a film trying to make things easy on its audience so the synopsis I have come up with here is only as accurate as I can hope to get after just one viewing. Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien who has landed in Scotland and taken human form. In order to maintain her appearance she must kidnap and dissolve human beings she finds along her way.
Capturing human beings does not prove difficult for an alien with Scarlett Johansson’s face. In cheap clothes she drives around the streets in a white van asking for directions until she finds a man who won’t be missed and who is willing to follow her home. Once in her surreal home the men follow Johansson inside on the promise of sex but soon realise that lovemaking is not on the cards. The visuals involved in this act are sublime and surreal and I really don’t want to spoilt them for you. Suffice to say that this is low budget Sci-Fi at its best and the focus is on atmosphere and imagery rather than fancy gadgetry or boring exposition.
While the opening shot is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as we see some abstract shapes come together slowly to form an eye, the rest of the film has more of a The Man Who Fell to Earth feel about it though with much less dialogue and without being nearly so awful. The setting of the film is Scotland and we are mostly shown busy roads and foggy countryside rather than gleaming spaceships. All we ever see of anything resembling and alien craft is an expanse of either black or white space. If the devil is in the detail this sparse production design is positively heavenly.
At the heart of the film we are seeing our world through the eyes of an alien and the perception clearly is that we can be easily exploited through our greatest weakness – men’s desire for women. Johansson’s alien’s survival depends solely on the fact that men will find her beautiful and want to instantly have sex with her. The proof of the film’s concept is that not all the men involved were actors and that Johansson actually drove around Glasgow in the van, disguised by a short dark wig and English accent, and real men gladly got in with her. Man’s almost animalistic desire for sex is our downfall in Under the Skin and ultimately is what brings about the film’s conclusion.
A surreal and lyrical experience Under the Skin is not Sci-Fi for those who like space battle and explosions but for those who like a unique look at the human condition. This is very much Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction though a special brand that strips back even the dialogue and prioritises atmosphere and visuals (not just visual effects). Scarlett Johansson has clearly taken a risk in appearing in a British Sci-Fi film but it has most definitely paid off thanks to excellent work from director Jonathan Glazer.