Director: Jonathan Glazer; Screenwriter: Walter Campbell; Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan; Running time: 108 minutes; Certification: 15
As the opening sequence of Under The Skin, a Glasgow-set experimental alien invasion movie starring Scarlett Johansson (yes, it’s as weird as it sounds), plays out, we can’t help but feel a resemblance to Kubrick, and specifically 2001. The slow-burning, esoteric imagery set against a foreboding backdrop and sinewy soundtrack has a distinctly Kubrickian vibe, and while I went into the film without knowing much other than that it was an adaptation of a well-received novel about an alien, this opening reeled me in immediately. But, like a fish out of water, I quickly jumped off the hook and swam back beneath the surface when Scarlett found herself trawling the murky streets of Glasgow.
First of all it really bothers me how depressingly Britain – particularly Scotland – is often portrayed on film. With the exception of a few, our modest isles have a tendency to look so disgusting and grimy and muggy on the screen, filled with cretins rather than people. While of course there are areas in the UK, just like any country, that are disgusting, there are so many nice places too. Likewise, not every Scottish person is a pervy, shaved-headed, football thug/ned. Under The Skin is hardly a chirpy film filled with daisies and sunshine, but must we always convince the rest of the world that our country is this despicable? With this portrayal, there’s an immediate barrier in front of me. I just don’t enjoy watching this world.
That problem, somewhat irrational though it is (I can admit it’s a personal issue), is exacerbated by the lack of explanation in the script. Admittedly such an issue can be forgiven as it’s a film relying on ambiguity, allegory and mystery to draw intrigue, but I think there needs to be a line somewhere. At some point something has to happen dramatically for us to bother investing our time, but nothing ever does. Johansson just drives around for an hour picking up various dodgy characters, then finds herself in the highlands walking around some more. There are some interesting elements in regards to her motive and intent, but dramatically it’s falls terribly flat.
Johansson’s performance, despite that, is very good, and like the film, rather experimental. She talks less than Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives, but she says so much with her body language and her always questioning eyes are creepily convincing that she’s not of our world. There are, therefore, undoubtedly things in here that certain audiences will find interesting, but to find things to enjoy is a big ask. I couldn’t warm to it (or perhaps cool to it as the drama more appropriately dictates), and while the denouement is terribly unsettling (in the right way) it’s far from an experience I want to repeat.