wed 22/05/2024

Under the Skin | reviews, news & interviews

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson's murdering, lonely alien is the heart of a flawed but haunting film

White van woman: Scarlett Johansson goes on the fatal pull in Glasgow

There are more bizarre, horrific and unnervingly beautiful moments in Jonathan Glazer’s much delayed third film than in the rest of his star Scarlett Johansson’s career. The strap-line - Scarlett as an alien fatally seducing Scottish men - suggests bonkers B-movie elements which Under the Skin has its share of. But by abandoning the hoary s.f.

back-story of the Michel Faber novel this adapts, Glazer has made a film which teeters on the edge of pretentious absurdity, and to its detractors falls in headlong; which is broken-backed, losing its way for crucial periods; but which is also memorably original, mysterious and upsetting, with scenes which sink their talons into you. It recalls the Seventies glory days of Britain’s shaman of cinema as a sensual rush, Nic Roeg, who would surely love it.

Faber fans will look in vain for his book’s factory farming allegory. Johansson does harvest men, luring them to a grim Glasgow house beneath which they dissolve and shatter in oil-black pools (scenes which are divisively abstract and borderline ludicrous). But Glazer’s main interest is to show us Earth through alien eyes. Largely improvised scenes in which Johansson cruises Glasgow in a white transit van flirting with unsuspecting passersby let the director fix his gaze on the oddness of human faces, for so long he seems hypnotised. A scene in which characters are tossed about in crashing coastal waves is also frighteningly real. It ends with a murder by Johansson, an unlikely predator in her fake fur coat, high-heeled boots and blue jeans. This is part of the film’s shifting tide of sexual and physical power. When Johansson weakens with sympathy for her victims, she’s left dependent on sheepishly good and wolfishly bad men. The battle of the sexes becomes a cruel business.

When stretched beyond her default amiable sexiness, Johansson has often seemed out of her depth, shielding bored vacancy behind a glamorous pout. To some extent that quality, and her film star exoticism as she strolls down Sauchiehall Street, pictured above right, makes her a convincing alien, as Bowie’s eerie blankness helped the film this is a cousin to, The Man Who Fell to Earth. But Johansson is also utterly committed here. Several nude scenes will ensure one sort of cult attention, but they are matter of fact and unflattering, and most remarkable when she assesses herself in a mirror, as if Johansson is coolly inspecting the mystery and mechanics of her much desired body from the outside. A star playing an alien again feels acutely apt.

Johansson’s gruelling immersion in her role goes much further, beginning with her gameness in tooling round Glasgow, and ending with her abandonment in the thickening black hole of the film’s final third. The glistening wet Highland forest where she finishes looks like a chilly Amazon, pictured above. The actress remembers the landscape trying to “spit them out” during scenes she found “terrifying”. Her reward is her first great role. Glazer misses the heights he’s groping for too often to quite say the same of his film. But its Olympian weirdness is wonderful.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Under the Skin



Johansson's film star exoticism makes her a convincing alien, as Bowie was in The Man Who Fell to Earth


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article


Roeg would surely love it, you are right on that but otherwise it's a pretty terrible film, like other critics, Nick, you've fallen for the directorial justifications, hook, line and sinker...

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters