Has Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin found success through its combination of style, star and Glasgow?
Under the Skin has invaded the UK box office at number ten this week, which is a happy surprise for what is undoubtedly a very challenging and often surreal science fiction film, one that just happens to star one of Hollywood’s most famous actresses of the moment: Scarlett Johansson. In my opinion, the film is probably going to be the best of the year (yep, calling it now) and director Jonathan Glazer should be a superstar auteur along the lines of Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson. However, Glazer’s penchant for taboo subject matter and the ten years it took to get Under the Skin on to screens has kept him in the shadow of his more popular contemporaries.
Under the Skin is an extraordinary film, but not an entirely accessible one. Is Scarlett Johansson’s star power enough to fill seats?
Under the Skin is a dark, surreal and disturbing rumination on what it means to be human, and by stripping the story right down to the bone, Glazer is able to focus on looking at the world through truly alien eyes. This “otherness” is reflected in the gorgeous cinematography, incendiary film score and Johansson’s tactile performance. It is an extraordinary film, but not an entirely accessible one. So how come Under the Skin is already a strong contender at the box office? Is Scarlett Johansson’s star power enough to fill seats? Perhaps its Glaswegian setting is filling a demand for films based in the UK – or are audiences just more switched on than Hollywood gives them credit for?
The most obvious factor is the presence of Johansson. She has one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood at the moment, not only for her blockbuster status as a member of Marvel’s The Avengers; even the recent controversy surrounding her advertising deal with SodaStream has kept Johansson in the public eye. Much like Nicole Kidman’s involvement in Glazer’s previous film, Birth, Under the Skin is a showcase for a known Hollywood actress, proving her dramatic chops outside of the usual mainstream fare while using her considerable box office clout to boost audience numbers on an otherwise little-known film.
More on Glazer’s previous film: Is it time Birth got a re-appraisal?
Another contributing factor could be the film’s elements of cinéma vérité, and its primary setting in the city of Glasgow. One of Glazer’s coups de grâce was to install eight hidden cameras inside a van and have Johansson actually drive through the streets of Glasgow, interacting with real men who just happened by. This presentation results in a view of a familiar landscape and its inhabitants, but with a step removed; we feel a sense of realism and surrealism simultaneously. The use of real locations and people adds a personal touch – we all like to see familiar elements from our lives reflected back to us in cinema.
Perhaps the strongest contributing factor to Under the Skin’s box office success is its audience appreciation
Sure, it’s purposely warped to give us an alien view of what we have come to take for granted, but maybe that’s what we want as well. We also go to the cinema to escape everyday life, so to not only have it reflected back at us but to have it done with a distorted mirror resonates even more than it would otherwise. This is perhaps the strongest contributing factor to Under the Skin’s box office success: audience appreciation. The producers of Hollywood blockbusters think that, to make the most money, they must make the loudest, most obnoxious film there is to draw people into the cinema, out of a sense of curiosity because of the sheer amount of noise it makes. They shudder to think that audiences want to actually be engaged in something interesting or, God forbid, even challenging.
We want to go to the cinema to have a good time. 300: Rise of an Empire is loud and brash and cost millions of dollars, but we go to these films more out of habit than anything else. Under the Skin’s current, if comparatively modest, box office success proves there may be a considerable number of us who are fed up with the same old same old. It proves we’re looking for something else – something fulfilling. Something that asks more questions than it answers, the complete opposite of the blockbusters, which don’t really ask anything of us at all, except maybe for all of our money.
Not all of us fell for Under the Skin: Is the film really just cinematic purgatory?
All images: StudioCanal