Films like this do not come around often, and when they do, they are met with strong opinions on either side.
By Zachary Beckler
Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary new film Under The Skin begins in absolute darkness and ends in absolute white. In that opening void, we are presented with a small speck of light, coming closer and closer. It is some sort of canal, perhaps signaling a birth. We start to see other angles of it. A black cylindrical object enters a round white orb. A voice is heard, random words said, perhaps learning a new language. The black cylinder pushes through the white orb, stopping to reveal the formation of a pupil. In all of this abstraction, we have seen the creation of an eye, of a sight. This opening explicitly signals that this is a film about a perspective, but whose?
Films like this do not come around often, and when they do, they are met with strong opinions on either side. If there is one consistent viewpoint of this and all of Glazer’s work (Sexy Beast, Birth), it is that no one is indifferent to it. Cinema is always at its best when creating mystery and asking questions. The problem is that most of the modern multiplex cinema consists of solving mysteries and giving answers. Nothing lasts when the film ends. Luckily for us, Under The Skin belongs to the former.
It does not take long to understand what exactly is going on under the surface of the non-verbal filmmaking at hand. Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed alien prowling the streets of Glasgow looking for men who are alone and vulnerable. These scenes were shot with hidden cameras, as Johansson stops real people in the streets and attempts to get them in her van. Her conversation at first seems extremely engaging and pleasant for an alien, until you realize her methods of verbal seduction consist of asking questions, conveying genuinely curiosity, and simply being Scarlett Johansson. When the men allow her to take them to an abandoned building, presumably for sex, she leads them in an almost trance-like state into an entirely black space where they appear to be harvested for some reason the film does not entirely go into. This leads to some of the most grotesque and haunting imagery in the film. That black space is in direct contrast to the various white spaces Johansson finds herself in at different points in the film. If the dark rooms show death and horror, the white spaces always seem to signal a kind of birth.
The film appears to be about how this alien’s detached view of our world gives way to either empathy or at least an empathetic curiosity. As Glazer has said, it is a film about, “looking at the world through an alien lens.” This informs every element of the film, from the unbiased way it is shot, to the Buster Keaton-like expression on Johansson’s face as she reacts to situations the audience brings their own emotions and associations to. Take the first scene; we see Johansson completely naked in a large white space. A mysterious motorcyclist (her employer?) has found a dying woman and Johansson is stripping her clothes off to become her. Why this woman? Could she not get clothes elsewhere? Is it some random, drugged-out woman, or another like her? Is Johansson the replacement? She watches a tear fall down the woman’s cheek. Johansson bends down curiously, but seems more fascinated with the small ant crawling on the woman’s naked flesh. This establishes a detachment from compassion in the character, as do several scenes after, including a heartbreaking beach scene involving a baby. But as she does the same task over and over, her assimilation into this world starts to have an effect, as it would if you spend any long period of time in within a foreign culture. She starts to have experiences, and reactions to those experiences based on her past experiences.
With this film and Her, we have yet another great role for Johansson in which she plays an artificial character discovering humanity, realizing it does not fit her, and then ascending beyond it. When we finally see her alien form under the skin, there is not much there. It is a mannequin-like frame for the skin to adhere to. What is Johansson’s true form?
I keep thinking of that woman at the beginning, who I am convinced is another alien, and the tear that roles down her cheek. She is not dead, but her identity is being stolen, and she shows emotion about it. That man on the motorcycle who cleans up every crime keeps a close eye on Johansson’s alien throughout the film. Why? Does he expect a similar fate? It makes the ending, that is at first horrific and tragic, almost beautiful. She cannot be replaced. She started her journey in darkness and ends it ascending to white. It is a rebirth of a different sort.
Zachary Beckler is a writer, producer, editor, and director based in Orlando, FL. He is a graduate of UCF Film’s Masters of Fine Arts program. His short films “Séance” (2012) and “Where Is Alice?” (2013) have played at festivals around the world, and his upcoming debut horror feature, “INTERIOR”, is currently in post-production, set for completion in Summer 2014.