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Under The Skin – film review

June 4, 2014


Beautifully troubling.

Reviewed on Friday 30th May 2014


Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Screenplay by Walter Campbell, based on a novel by Michel Faber. Starring: Scarlett Johansson. Running time: 107 mins.

The great sound designer Walter Murch said of THX 1138 that it was not so much     a film ABOUT the future – as a film FROM the future. In other words, it was a movie completely devoid of any explanation of anything which happens. I bring this up because the same could be said of Under The Skin – as it too is a movie completely lacking in anything even remotely resembling exposition.

Under The Skin is the new feature from visionary British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth, and videos for Blur, Massive Attack and Radiohead) – and stars Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial whose job it is to lure single lonely men to their doom for reasons unknown. During the course of events, Scarlett’s character begins to develop compassion for human beings and essentially abandons her purpose in order to interact directly with the world around her in an attempt to experience and understand what it is to be human. None of this is explicitly stated, (hence the complete lack of exposition) – which again brings to mind Walter Murch’s intent with THX 1138 – as Under The Skin could easily be viewed as not so much     a film ABOUT aliens; as it is a film produced BY aliens – for an alien audience; told entirley from an alien perspective – without resorting to extraneous dialogue and over-explanation.

Similar in tone to the equally visually and aurally arresting Beyond The Black Rainbow, Glazer’s film is less a formal narrative and more a lyrical mood piece.     And much like Black Rainbow, Under The Skin is very much a visceral – rather than intellectual experience (which is not say there isn’t an intellectual depth here – there is) – but it is definitely first and foremost a visceral experience. Unlike Black Rainbow however – Under The Skin could never be described as style over substance, as there is plenty going on here just beneath the surface.

As the film begins, Scarlett’s character (who, along with the rest of the cast – is never named) has newly arrived on Earth and, as a result, has virtually zero regard for the human men she lures to their deaths – in much the same way an abbattoir worker might have zero empathetic connection with the livestock he slaughters. Gradually however, over the course of the film, she begins to develop an interest in humanity.

Scarlett gives an incredibly brave performance here (spending some of the time without her kit on) – interacting with non-actors while sporting an authentic-sounding English accent. Indeed, much has been made of the hidden camera techniques Glazer has employed to capture real-life interactions between Scarlett and the men she picks up in her van. There is an absolute sense of authenticity to these scenes which enhances the dread we feel for the potential victims’ well-being (despite the fact that many of these authentic Glaswegian accents are virtually unfathomable – although, having said that, we do get the gist of what is being said thanks to Scarlett’s improvised responses). And I must make mention too of Adam Pearson;     a non-actor who suffers from the disfiguring medical condition neurofibromatosis – who also gives an incredibly brave and moving performance in a pivotal role.

From the abstract ‘pure cinema’ opening (utilizing Lynchian soundscapes to set the tone) – to the haunting finale; there are many moments of true, if unsettling beauty     in Glazer’s film; the underwater scenes with Scarlett’s victims bathed in blue light, floating in a black void; the wind rippling through a forest of pine trees. Despite these astonishingly arresting moments, however, the general tone of the film is one of unrelenting dread; the most affecting scene being the oft-mentioned beach scene which is psychologically devastating – reportedly the cause of walkouts at various screenings. And the demise of one of the men Scarlett abducts is perhaps one of     the most bizarrely shocking movie moments in recent memory (second only to the ending – which I won’t be spoiling here).

If you’re seriously thinking about watching this film at home (it is currently available on VOD) – I’d strongly recommend you go see it in a cinema. To experience it fully,   it simply is a must-see theatrically – not only to allow the incredibly dense and immersive soundscapes to wash over you, but also in order to surrender yourself completely over to it – to give your undivided attention to it without distraction. It is for this reason I’d actually go as far as to say this is another one of those rarest of films (much like last year’s Gravity) which should absolutely be seen in a cinema – or not at all.

Under The Skin is perhaps the most audacious film of the year and unlike anything seen in a long long time. While it may not be for everyone – indeed, there will be many who will just flat-out hate it – it is definitely a film which will stay with you     long after you have seen it (and one seriously cannot ask for much more than that).

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Palace-Nova Eastend Cinemas, Adelaide, May 30th 2014.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

  1. I really enjoyed this review! I always love to read reviews from a filmmakers perspective. If interested I’d like to invite you to become a contributor to Send me an email. 🙂

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Jazmina! I’m pleased you like my writing. I tried emailing you – but it bounced back. Could you perhaps email me at: … Cheers! 🙂

  2. Really interested in seeing this (I have the Blu-ray ordered; didn’t seem to stay around at the cinemas around here for long). You make a good point about THX 1138. There’s a few films like that; indeed I often think that good historical movies are like watching science-fiction films, in that people back in the past should look and act and even think so differently to us, their life-experiences and knowledge/belief systems so different to ours. I guess that applies to aliens as much as historical figures!

    • gregory moss permalink

      I’d be interested to hear what you think of UTS … and you’re absolutely right about comparing sci-fi films with historical movies (in terms of world-building) … Actually, one of my biggest problems with PROMETHEUS was that it completely anthropomorphised the Space Jockey’s culture from ALIEN and made it less … well, alien … One of the great things about the original ALIEN is the way that none of Giger’s outlandish world-building warranted an explanation …

      • Yeah, I always seem to be apologising for PROMETHEUS, its clearly not the film it should have been but neither is it as bad as some make out, but the one thing I find very hard to forgive is turning that utterly alien Space Jockey into a giant bald guy in a space suit. What were they thinking?

        Anyway, UNDER THE SKIN arrives next week, my review should follow shortly after…

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