It has been 9 years since Jonathan Glazer made Birth, the underrated follow-up to his brilliant debut Sexy Beast. The British director has spent much of that time trying to adapt Dutch-Scots writer Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin. Shooting with Scarlett Johansson wrapped in time for it to have been scheduled for release in 2012. But it was never ready.
The word was that Glazer was working on the edit at a glacial pace that would make Terrence Malick proud. Now that it has finally debuted, it appears that in the end Glazer simply gave up on trying to find a cohesive story.
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. She’s a blank canvas, something to look at as she wanders around picking up men.
The film opens promisingly, with a faint light growing into what seems to be a sun, before it is revealed as a pupil. There are echoes of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey in this and in the observational alien tale The Man Who Fell To Earth. The comparisons do Glazer no favours.
Next a motorcyclist is seen driving ferociously through the streets before stopping and picking up a woman from the side of the road. The motorcyclist pops up throughout but we never know who he is. The woman (no character has a name) is taken to a completely white room, where another woman, practically her doppelganger, undresses her, puts on her clothes and reveals herself to be Johansson with jet black hair. She drives through Glasgow looking at people going about their lives, moves through a crowd of Celtic fans, shops for red lipstick and changes into the fake fur coat and blue jeans in which she spends most of the movie. Johansson drives around. The only demographic she interacts with are men under 30. We see that Scots like football and sex. She takes the hitchers to a black room where they disappear into a watery grave. These abstract scenes look like perfume adverts or music videos - where Glazer first made his name.
In one car scene the protagonist listens in on a news report of a family drowning, after which we’re informed that 2014 is going to be a big year for Scotland, a referendum, the Ryder cup and the Commonwealth Games. The Scottish tourist board will be happy with that, but they might have pointed the director in the direction of the large ethnic minority community in the city. As an observation of human life this is blinkered. The single silver lining is that the driving scenes are accompanied by Mica Levi’s eerie soundtrack that makes the car sound like a spaceship from a Kubrick film.
The closing sequences in the Highlands are equally perplexing. The alien laughably discovers her vagina, and it ends with an attempted rape and the peeling off of her skin.
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