Tension flows throughout Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under the Skin. Glazer, known for his directorial work in Sexy Beast, Birth and various advertisement campaigns, loosely adapts Michel Faber’s novel of the same name in this film, exploring an alien’s life, amidst the backdrop of Glasgow. Cast amongst this grey setting is Scarlett Johansson, who fittingly feels alien in the role. Initially glazed over and looking for prey in the form of men who she coaxes back to her lairs, Johansson’s character slowly becomes sympathetic to the people she encounters, leading the character to stray from how she is innately hard wired.
Glazer’s approach to using hidden cameras throughout the film works in a fascinating way, exploring the realism of the setting. This initially feels contradictory to the science-fiction elements of the film. However, watching Johansson flirtatiously begin conversations with lone men, whom a great proportion of them are not actors, on the streets of Glasgow from her white van, to then change to her cold fixed alien stare is utterly compelling. The switch between seductive to coldness in Johansson’s expression indicate the terror that is yet to fall upon these men. The mixture of science-fiction and realism results in the film carrying more depth, allowing the film to be deeply disturbing alongside being awkwardly comedic, both to great effect in forcing the audience to take a glimpse into Glazer’s alien perspective.
Underpinning the plot is the combination of the visually over-whelming special effects alongside Mica Levi’s soundtrack. The song “Drift” by Levi, used during the submerging sequences, adds to the disturbing nature of the alien’s ritual. When one submerged male figure suddenly erupts into a white, cloth like material and flows further into the black abyss to the sounds of Levi’s threatening noises, the audience jump in their seats. The audience, in these fleeting moments of the film, are at their closest to being terrified by the consequences of the alien’s actions due to how the visual special effects and soundtrack amalgamate. Glazer has mentioned in an interview that during the making of the film, they were considering using no music. With hindsight, this would have been a great mistake and disservice to the film.
The way Under the Skin was filmed, the special effects and the soundtrack used come together to create a mood of unsettling coldness, which perfectly mirrors the alien subject. Glazer’s nine-year struggle in making this film reaps the reward of going through various drafts of the film. The film is bravely minimalistic, allowing aspects of the film, whether it is Johansson’s fixed expressions of emotional distance, the visual effects or Levi’s soundtrack to truly shock the audience in a powerfully stripped back manner.