SO FEW movies have any sense of real visual nuttiness anymore that I am tempted to talk up Under The Skin and its spooky scenario of a vampy alien who picks up men and makes them into dinner.
Under The Skin (15)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Running time: 108 minutes
Star rating: * * *
Also, it features astonished Glasgow punters being chatted up by a gorgeous Scarlett Johansson in a black wig and the voice of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Plus it’s directed by Jonathan Glazer, an intriguing commercials director who made a huge splash in 2001 with his debut feature, Sexy Beast, then got peanuts chucked at him for the far artier, stillborn Birth.
Under The Skin’s west coast locations add another dimension for Scots audiences. Early on, driving around Govan in an enormous van, Johansson tunes into a Radio Scotland phone-in on Scottish independence, and further underlines her alien otherworldliness by not immediately switching over to Clyde. However, international audiences have found the setting more of a struggle – or to put it bluntly, there have been complaints about comprehending local accents during Johansson’s improvised flirtations. Let’s translate a little. “Do you fancy me?” inquires Scarlett, roguishly. “Aye,” responds one garrulous suitor. “You’re brand new.” It’s surprising we aren’t up to our oxters in alluring aliens, isn’t it? Even aliens who don a human skin and thoroughly explore the make-up and sexy underwear side of their human appearance, yet are later shocked by the discovery that the package also includes a vagina. Put it another way: if I try on a suit, I check out all the pockets.
For a while, Johansson is content to follow a regular pattern of luring men back to her house, where everyone strips down to their underwear before the men are submerged in an inky goo, while Mica Levi’s soundtrack does a very good impression of a bat trapped in Spearmint Rhino. Admittedly, I really liked Levi’s score, but like everything else in Under The Skin – direction, performance, image – it’s very keen on drawing attention to its own artfulness.
Under The Skin has style to burn, and Glazer has the confidence to linger on static shots and pockets of silence that are supposed to throb with atmospheric profundity. Some of it is clearly inspired by Kubrick stark images of burnished unease, or The Man Who Fell To Earth if you slowed Nic Roeg down to 33√, but at least someone is trying here.
For about an hour, the film keeps you hooked, despite the creeping realisation that the director has no control of his themes, and no intention of helping his audience with the hard digging by fleshing out allusive hints.
Johansson’s alien gradually seems to develop a taste for humanity beyond mere “snack”. She even tries out some of our pleasures – a bit of cake here, a bit of sex there – but may be held back from full immersion by some mysterious motorcyclists who zip in and out of the film. Are they aliens? Probably, but Glazer is too stylistically refined to tell, and eventually I was too bored to care.
Undoubtedly this is a film that casts a striking visual and sonic spell, but while you may credit its ambition, it’s impossible to recommend the film unreservedly because Under The Skin stubbornly prefers to stay on the surface; a tall tale with a short reach.
• On general release from Friday