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New Release Review - Under the Skin

An alien in the guise of a beautiful young woman preys upon men in Glasgow.

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson




Assuming the guise of an attractive young woman, an alien being, Laura (Johansson), roams around the greater Glasgow area in a white van that appears inconspicuous but houses a strange Tardis-like interior. Using her charm, Laura picks up young men and lures them back to a mysterious run down house on the outskirts of town. Inside, the men find themselves sinking into a black liquid void, which Laura seems impervious to. Laura continues unabated with this technique until one particular encounter stirs a newfound sense of empathy within her.
Jonathan Glazer has to be Britain's most under-appreciated film-maker. His Pinter-esque 2000 debut, Sexy Beast, was the one diamond in the glut of otherwise awful British gangster movies that plagued cinemas in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the genre's relegation to straight to DVD shelf fodder. 2004 saw him move Stateside for Birth, the best Kubrick movie Kubrick never made but a film sadly ignored by audiences and castigated by critics. A decade of revisionism later and Birth is now held up by many as one of the best films of our young century. The indifference at the time of its release crippled Glazer's career however and we've had to wait a full 10 years for his third movie. Thankfully it's been worth the wait; Glazer has now made three of the most unique and interesting movies of the past 14 years.
On face value, Under the Skin seems like the sort of trashy modern B-movie that might premiere on the SyFy channel. It certainly owes a lot to mainstream sci-fi flicks in its basic premise but Glazer's approach is far from mainstream. Imagine a hybrid of Species and Starman directed by Tarkovsky and you'll have some idea what to expect, though the film will certainly surprise.
Like John Carpenter's under-rated 1984 movie, Under the Skin is the story of an alien discovering humanity. What's unique about the plot here is that it's not some shady human military types who are out to stop Laura but rather one of her own, a mysterious motorcycle rider who initially cleans up after her misdemeanors but becomes her enemy once those human feelings kick in and Laura stops supplying fresh man meat.
Like many of Kubrick's films, the movie is split into two distinct halves. For the first half, when Laura is simply fulfilling her duty to whatever higher power rules her, a cinema verite approach is employed, with hidden cameras capturing Johansson's improvised interactions with unsuspecting Glaswegians. The quality of the acting means the performances by professional actors blend in seamlessly with those of the secretly filmed members of the public. 
Glazer conveys Laura's adjustment to this new world through an inventive use of sound design. Everything sounds slightly off, almost gratingly so, at the outset, gradually becoming corrected as Laura becomes comfortable in her new skin. In these early scenes, Johansson is awkward in her body movements, her legs stumbling like a new born calf. There's something intensely creepy about watching someone move in this alien manner, particularly queasy is a scene where Laura falls to the street and simply remains on the ground, dumbfounded, before passersby help her to her feet.
The movie's second half features Laura discovering a sense of humanity following an encounter that recalls Frankenstein's Monster's meeting with the kindly blind man. The look of the movie shifts to an immaculately crafted visual aesthetic, the misty landscape of rural Scotland reminiscent of the otherworldly Russia of Tarkovsky's Stalker. When Laura finds herself in a dense fog, she, along with the viewer, is reminded of the empty voids of her home world, but the stillness is interrupted by the distant sounds of human voices.
Under the Skin may resolve itself in nihilistic fashion but its final shot is one of uniquely eerie beauty that I could have happily gazed at for several minutes before the interruption of the credits. Through his movie's simple premise, Glazer reminds us that while humans can often be cruel and ugly, humanity is always beautiful.
8/10


Eric Hillis

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