Under The Skin, film review: Scarlett Johansson is full-blooded as femme fatale alien


Film plays like an experimental art installation on the very grandest scale

Film stars don’t often come to Arbroath. That was why, in the dead of winter in 2011, there was such a flurry of interest in the Angus press that Scarlett Johansson had been spotted shooting her new feature on the beach in Auchmithie, outside Arbroath.

Under the Skin, the film Johansson was making, is a wondrously odd and jarring affair, pitched between science fiction and observational documentary, between the exotic and the banal.

It includes both flesh-eating aliens and tea cakes, mind-bending cosmic imagery and down-to-earth footage of contemporary Scotland.

Finally completed almost a decade after its director Jonathan Glazer’s previous feature, Birth (2004), it confirms Glazer’s reputation as one of British cinema’s most idiosyncratic visionaries.

In spite of Johansson’s presence, the film is as far removed from the mainstream as the actress’s character is from her home planet. It plays like an experimental art installation on the very grandest scale. 


The screenplay is adapted from Michel Faber’s novel but Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell have pared the novel down to its bones. They drain it of suspense by revealing the girl’s extraterrestrial origins right at the outset. Glazer doesn’t provide much in the way of back story. We know that Johansson’s alien girl preys on humans but we are not told why. Are the aliens starving and coming to earth to harvest humans because of their hunger, or do they regard human flesh as a delicacy? Why do they only go after men? A deliberately enigmatic film refuses to answer such questions.

Under the Skin has a spectacular, Stanley Kubrick-like overture in which we see Johansson come to earth. From a dot in the extreme distance, Glazer cuts to a huge close-up of  a brown eyeball. A motorcyclist picks up a dead woman’s body from the roadside. Against  a white backdrop, we see Johansson strip the woman whose skin she will inhabit.

Immediately afterward, in one of the film’s typical lurches from the sublime to the very mundane, Glazer shows us the character  wandering incognito through a crowded  shopping centre, browsing for a fur coat,  make-up and lipstick. Much of the film was reportedly shot with hidden cameras. None of the other shoppers seem aware that Johansson is in their midst. Black widow: Scarlett Johansson is a man-eater from another planet in 'Under the Skin' Black widow: Scarlett Johansson is a man-eater from another planet in 'Under the Skin'

Johansson is a femme fatale in a white van. From the driver’s seat, she is looking out at a world that is new to her. She stares at men of every age, size and shape as they walk down the Glasgow streets. At these moments, she seems closer to an undercover film-maker or anthropologist researching a remote culture than she does to a predatory alien.

We see the girl drive the van through a crowd of Celtic fans leaving a football match. There is no particular direction in which she is going. “I am looking for the M8,” she tells one passer-by in her politely spoken, BBC newsreader-style voice as she cajoles him into her passenger seat and toward his doom. She manages to be flirtatious without showing any emotion toward or empathy for her victims. There isn’t much evidence of desire or hunger, either.

The girl’s manner remains entirely detached whether she is in a nightclub, stoning a man to death or performing a striptease by rote. Her emotional coolness makes her all the more alluring and intriguing to the men.

She doesn’t respond to changes in weather or the landscape. As we see her on motorways, in suburbs, in cities and in villages, in forests and on mist-shrouded hills in her pink cardigan, it sometimes seems as if Glazer wants to show us every aspect of Scottish rural and urban life. Even during the film’s most humdrum moments, the film-makers include rumbles and echoes on the soundtrack that help defamiliarise everyday scenes and settings. The music and sound effects are oddly reminiscent of Clangers, Oliver Postgate’s TV show for kids. Not that there is much obvious humour here. Glazer realises that if there was a hint that the storytelling was tongue in cheek, the spell would be utterly broken. Scarlett Johansson as femme fatale alien Laura in Under the Skin Scarlett Johansson as femme fatale alien Laura

The naturalism of the scenes in which Johansson is driving across Scotland is contrasted with the ultra-stylised moments at which her victims find themselves engulfed in a dark, viscous fluid. It’s at these points that you remember Glazer’s background in advertising and those extravagantly strange Guinness commercials he once made, featuring surfers and white horses on the crest of huge waves.

There are longueurs here. Just as the alien girl meanders round Scotland, the script doesn’t have much sense of destination. Her pick-ups risk becoming repetitive. The lack of background information leaves audiences as much in the dark as the men the girl preserves in that gooey black jelly.

It’s Johansson, in a full-blooded and very brave performance, who gives the film its heart. For all the alien’s aloofness, she conveys her character’s increasing curiosity about the world around her and her desire to assimilate. We see her trying to eat human food (inevitably it makes her gag) and watching with bemusement a re-run of Tommy Cooper performing on TV. (Aliens may be strange but they’re nothing like as odd as British comedians.) Eventually, she even shows something close to tenderness.

Under the Skin has divided audiences since its festival premiere last autumn. Glazer has been accused of rank pretentiousness by some even as he has been wildly praised by others. This is the same response that was given to films like Bad Timing and The Man Who Fell to Earth by Nic Roeg, the British director to whom he now seems the natural successor.

Glazer shares Roeg’s formal boldness, visual imagination and his reckless willingness to tackle taboos. It is only to be hoped that, this time round, he doesn’t take 10 years to make another feature.

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform