Under the Skin arrives on the international scene trailing two referents, one a considerably more important moon, or planetoid, than the other: a rough outline of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (adapted from a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler), in which an alien in human form, seemingly equipped with a basic understanding of speech, getting on well enough on the fringes of our modern world, and so on, is planted among us with an unknown agenda. Second, a more recent movie, rather more likely to be admired for pluck and video-store savvy than overall cohesion as a stem-to-stern motion picture, Midnight Madness ambitions notwithstanding, is Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, a patchwork of VHS covers and half-remembered Cinemax fare, made drunk by a lot of epilepsy-inducing postproduction horseplay, itself borrowed from loveless memories of the avant-garde experimental titans to whom sci-fi hacks owe much more than they’re aware.
Glazer employs similar pyrotechnics – mostly in the opening minutes – but Under the Skin is light years from Cosmatos’s flippant, shambling postgrad project. In fact, across 108 minutes that observe minute-to-minute fluctuations in noise levels (clarity to cacophony), perspective (outside looking in or vice verse), the rendering of dreams or the rendering of the messy real world, and so on, Glazer maintains a consistent tone of wry, sober professionalism, an “alien” curiosity about his own creation.
For what seems to be the longest of the film’s three “acts,” the extra terrestrial Laura (Scarlett Johansson) drives through the Scottish highlands, picking up men who, we infer, are both (a) unattached and (b) up for it. In a room of complete blackness, she undresses, and as they follow, they find themselves immersed in a black preserving solution, to be harvested later. This section of the movie establishes the alien’s amoral attitude toward life on Earth (a baby is abandoned on the beach after its parents were drowned in the waves, and we infer from a later radio broadcast that it had gone missing; likely itself drowned), while keeping us clueless about her inner life. If there’s one B-movie cliché Glazer (and possibly Faber as well – I haven’t read the novel) keeps alive, it’s the one about sexy female aliens: stay far away from them, boys, if you value your skin and organs. But Glazer mashes this old chestnut and refashions it in the image of Kubrickian voids, taking pages from a sci-fi playbook and evacuating every ounce of camp.
Distinguishing Under the Skin is a formal conceit involving Laura-the-alien/Scarlett Johansson interacting with the real world, the real Scotland, and the real, treacherous wilderness. The hitchhikers and drifters Laura talks with through her van window are either amateurs or real Scots, and Johansson is often filmed against real, unadorned backdrops, such as shopping malls and bustling streets. Glazer makes no attempt to erase the seams dividing these segments of the film with more overtly genre-coded business; it’s his disciplined management of tone, as well as the unnerving, appropriately not-of-this-world score by English musician Mica Levi, that grants safe passage between territories. The result is a film whose custody is freely shared by modes of realism and abstraction, as well as subdivisions of the same. The major movement of the film follows the expansion and contraction of these subdivisions – for example, as a wide, Claude Berri-esque shot of Laura being carried across a muddy road, a decayed castle in the background, gives way to claustrophobic shots as she and her newfound Earth friend struggle with her newfound acrophobia, or when a stolen nap in a hiking shelter gives way to a dissolved image of the sleeping beauty among the treetops – as the alien Laura is led unawares to a place of ambivalence regarding her human form. Before a final conflagration, a half-second glimpse at a lifelike, animatronic Johansson-head, separated from her extra-terrestrial core, gives lie to any thoughts of integration for our visitor. The impossibility of what actually occupied the space “under the skin” is an abomination, recognized as such by the worst human she encounters, and the sticky, pitch-like substance that seems to be the common element between its skinless, impish manifestation and the goo-traps seen earlier in the film, prove unsuitable as flame retardant.