Constraints and limited resources can be a virtue in cinema as in all creative projects. Under The Skin, which has just been released on DVD, is a science fiction movie, directed by Jonathan Glazer, which proves that strength of idea, and clarity of vision, is more important than any flashy and distracting technology.
Constraints have made Glazer more, rather than less, inventive. He and his production team have managed to find a fresh way to tell a science fiction story and tell it convincingly from an alien’s perspective.
As Peter Bradshaw pointed out in his review in The Guardian, there’s no one more alien than a genuine A-list star like Scarlett Johansson dropped into the middle of Glasgow, or onto a rainy windswept North Sea beach in winter. The surroundings may be alien to Johansson, but in turn the superstar is just as forbidding and as alien to the denizens of Glasgow, as they struggle to and from work and nights out through the city’s grey, dark streets.
Even the passing football fans are aliens. If you look carefully the fans that Johansson is surrounded by as she drives her fan though the city are Hibernian, not Celtic, fans. And there’s surely nothing on earth more out-of-place than a Hibs fan in Glasgow, and even one of Johansson’s first victim’s sports a green Hibs shirt – truly a lost soul.
The director may not have had the resources of a Hollywood blockbuster, even with the presence of a Hollywood star, but he has used inventive, creative devices to tell his story and illuminate his vision.
The hidden camera approach gives the film an immediacy and truth that fictional cinema rarely achieves, even though as viewers we are still conscious of the fake. But that’s maybe just another aspect of our alienation from the alien.
There’s a magnificent sequence midway through of layer upon layer of moving street images, which soon overflow the screen and turn into a burnished gold Russian icon-style image of the alien Johansson at her van’s steering wheel: a breathtaking moment in a groundbreaking film.
The narrative is often harrowing and disorienting and there’s a moral emptiness at the heart of this movie that reflects the dark glassy emptiness at the core of the alien herself.
But who is more empty – the alien or the humans? What exactly is under the skin, and what does it mean to be human anyway?
The layering of meaning and of imagery in Under The Skin, combined with the relative simplicity of narrative, breaks though to reveal the cold clarity of humanity’s haunted reality.