With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is up.
Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary Under the Skin blew me away. Here was something so weird and so original that it defied you to watch it. Glazer throws so many disparate elements against the wall that it really shouldn’t work, yet the culminating effect is a look at the world through alien eyes. Mundane and familiar images appear on screen warped and distorted as to become completely foreign to us, while Mica Levi’s nerve-wracking score plucks at the chords of our subconscious.
Glazer achieves an immediacy that breaks through the artifice of cinema to allow us to view everything in a new way
At the centre of it all is Scarlett Johansson as an extra-terrestrial who chats up the real life men of Glasgow through the window of her enormous van (acting as a sort of intergalactic drive-thru), before taking them back to her bedsit/spaceship where she harvests them for their bio-matter. Johansson’s performance is mesmerising, as she embodies the idea of the alien other with an inquisitive look of an entity that doesn’t quite understand the nature of humanity but is willing to dive into the raw experience of it.
Glazer’s masterstroke is in his combination of styles. By hiding inside Johansson’s van and filming her documentary-style as she randomly chats up the real life citizens of Glasgow, he achieves an immediacy that breaks through the artifice of cinema to allow us to view everything in a new way. These men are very happy to help a beautiful woman, but in the real world they do not realise the woman is a Hollywood star, while in the world of the film they do not realise she is an alien hunting for prey. The gaze is now simultaneous: they are both consuming and being consumed by each other. Then, Glazer shifts from documentary to pure artifice.
The way landscapes are captured and images are superimposed over one another becomes truly alien. The sleek black void of the alien’s spaceship, with its floors that turn to something like black milk, and the presence of the alien’s mysterious motorcycle-riding accomplice come together into a miasma of alien images, as motorways resemble constellations and forests swaying in the breeze look as if they are underwater. Barriers break down and expectations fall away as you watch this mixing of styles, which creates a new cinematic language different to the one in which we have become fluent. We are all strangers in a strange land.
With a mixing of styles, Under the Skin creates a new cinematic language, different to the one in which we have become fluent
However, this strangeness itself begins to metamorphose, as the alien’s contact with humanity draws her closer to us and us to her. When she comes into contact with a young man with neurofibromatosis (played by Adam Pearson), she doesn’t recognise him as different than the other men, as she has no context or frame of reference for “otherness”. These two outsiders form a connection that changes something in Johansson’s alien, affecting her mission. Her view of the world shifts and perhaps she begins to gain a little understanding of this world.
So she flees the city for the countryside, where she meets another man with a different world view. He shows her the simple wonders of the world, those unique individual moments which become monumental due to the time and place in which they are experienced. The slick, alien feel of the picture subsides here to allow for some human warmth, but things are still at a remove as Johansson’s alien is drawn toward a more human connection. Still, she cannot quite make the spark jump across the divide.
These moments of connection are fleeting, as the Earth holds as much terror as it does beauty, something the alien is quick to discover, when – through fear of the unknown – we become not so different from an alien race which seeks to turn us into food. The universe is a cosmic charnel house indifferent to our awe and suffering, yet here we are, bearing witness to something eternal, inexplicable and sublime. Yet if we can recognise that our experiences are not limited to the human but are clearly universal, then perhaps through understanding and empathy we can begin to map these previously alien territories.
With political rhetoric and hate speech louder than ever, it’s all the more important to see the world through eyes other than our own
This theme of universal empathy feels especially potent as 2014 comes to a close. With political rhetoric and hate speech seemingly louder than ever, it is all the more important to see the world through eyes other than our own. Under the Skin uses this idea aesthetically, but also our gaze is interpreted by the alien whose burgeoning emotions we can all take inspiration from. If an extra-terrestrial whose sole purpose is to harvest our flesh and bio-material can learn at least a touch of empathy for us, can we not as humans do the same? We are never more alien to one another than when we let our acceptance and understanding be blinded by fear.
Glazer has only built on the legacy of his previous two films, fashioning a unique science fiction experience. He draws inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with his conversion of our familiar terra firma into a truly alien landscape. He also manages to improve on Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth with his dark rumination of an alien lost amongst a planet of humans. Blurring the lines between the real and the imagined, Glazer invites us to redraw our frame of reality and gaze upon the everyday with a stranger’s eyes. Under the Skin is another stunning achievement from a master filmmaker.
All images: StudioCanal