Under The Skin reviews round-up: An iconic, astonishing opportunity for Scarlett Johansson or a plotless, pretentious mess?


Those present at the Venice Film Festival premiere of Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited alien hitchhiker film, Under The Skin, reported that the director’s first feature since Birth was greeted with an even split of boos and cheers from the auditorium.

This divided response to a film, which stars Scarlett Johansson as a murderous non-human who entices hapless Glaswegian males into her van before devouring them whole, has been reflected by the critics – several of whom slam it as pretentious and awful, while others award it five stars and hail it as a piece of iconic cinema.

Here’s a reviews round-up:

The Independent’s Kaleem Aftab (One Star) is less than complimentary, remarking: “Over its long gestation period Glazer also seems to have forgotten the plot of the novel - about an alien who masquerades as an alluring woman, kidnapping hitchhikers and selling them back home for food. None of the motivation makes it onto the screen. Indeed it’s not completely clear that the main protagonist is an alien until the final scene. Glazer didn’t forget the alluring woman though, and Johansson spends plenty of time sizing herself up in the mirror and wearing pretty underwear. She delivers a muted performance, befitting her character, but there is nothing for the audience to empathise with.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg (No star rating) was equally taken aback by the feature, observing: “When a film takes nine years to make, from start to finish, it usually means two things: It's a passion project of a somewhat self-indulgent director, and it's probably got some problems. I'm afraid that this film is no exception…To me, Under the Skin is a lot like another visually beautiful but plotless and pretentious film from a director who is capable of so much more: David Cronenberg's recent Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson.”

The Guardian’s Xan Brooks (Five Stars), on the other hand, is entirely complimentary: “A pox on the cat-callers; they can boo themselves hoarse. Under the Skin is far and away the best picture in the competition so far: a story that plays as a kind of malarial dream, bathed in cold sweat and seeing hallucinations in every corner. Johansson proves bizarrely engrossing as the unnamed succubus, fetchingly augmented with jet-black hair and blood-red lipstick, who drives a van around Scotland in search of her prey.”

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin (Five Stars) declared himself “astonished” by the film, writing: “Johansson is nothing short of iconic here; her character is a classic femme fatale in the film noir tradition, down to the plump red lips and deep fur coat, but with a refrigerated nothingness at her core. She looks at her fellow cast members as if they are from another planet – which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Even the Scottish landscape looks alien: dawn mist rolls across lochs like curls of space dust. Glazer’s astonishing film takes you to a place where the everyday becomes suddenly strange, and fear and seduction become one and the same.”

The Evening Standard’s Derek Malcolm (Four Stars) says: “The point of the film is not to see an alien at work among us but to see us from an alien’s point of view. And it works with very little in the way of a screenplay and even less obvious explanation — but with a sense of mystery and wonder that a good film-maker can manufacture through style and atmosphere. Mica Levi’s music adds considerably to the sense that we are getting a view of normal life that is distinctly different. Johansson apart, almost all the actors were amateurs picked by Glazer off the street, and Johansson herself has very little orthodox acting to do. The look is enough.”

Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin