Stanley Kubrick is Dead, Long Live Stanley Kubrick or: How I Stopped Worrying and Let Under the Skin Give Me a Lobotomy
Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Screenplay by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer based on the novel by Michael Faber
Starring Scarlett Johansson
A Studio Film 4/BFI release
It’s been a long time since I walked out of a film and thought to myself, “Well, that movie just completely fucked me in the head”. Thanks to Jonathan Glazer, it happened with Under the Skin. It’s great to have Glazer back in action. He is best known for his music video gigs (Radiohead, The Dead Weather, Massive Attack, Blur and so on) but where his true passions lie, at least to this writer, is in feature film making. Unfortunately, he is not very prolific on that front (a little more on that later).
Starting in 2001 with the cheeky gangster movie Sexy Beast, Glazer made a splash on the indie artsy film circuit and immediately became a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he gifted us with another film. That film was Birth, a reincarnation thriller starring Nicole Kidman. It was then that I suspected that maybe – just maybe – Glazer might be the heir to Stanley Kubrick (I know what you’re thinking: “Whaaaaaaaat?!”). With the film’s detached storytelling and acting style, languid camera movements, chilly atmosphere, deliberately slow pacing and an unnerving film score, I couldn’t help but think that Kubrick’s ghost might have had a hand in the making of the movie.
After nine long years of waiting to see if this dude was legit, Glazer has graced us with Under the Skin, and I no longer suspect that he might be the heir to Kubrick, I now know he is!
What is Under the Skin about?
Hmm. Good question.
Ostensibly, it is a story concerning a visitor from another planet (Scarlett Johansson) roaming Scotland as part of some sort of mysterious invasion. I guess. I say “I guess” because the movie doesn’t like to answer questions so much as pose more and more of them; the damn thing is hard to pin down. After commandeering some ill-fated woman’s skin, our visitor goes around looking for johns in a van and, once they’re adequately seduced, she takes them to some undisclosed place where…anyway, I’m not going to say much more, not only because I don’t want to spoil the fun of feeling your brain slowly melt away, but also because I’m still thinking about the movie with no concrete answers – just guesses – at its intent.
Johansson reports back to some other alien dude who zips around on a motorcycle, up and down winding roads straight out of Kubrick’s the Shining. Eventually, we find out that there is a whole gang of motorcycle-riding aliens. Apart from being Johansson’s handlers, they seem to function as cleaners the way Harvey Keitel’s character, The Wolf, cleans up in Pulp Fiction, minus the charm. Apart from being a predator, our alien protagonist seems to be curious about the lunch meat she keeps trying to pick up. Like in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, at first the alien has no real understanding of what human beings are like and, while getting to know their nature, she begins assimilating and developing human qualities of her own.
Under the Skin is the type of film for which the line “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” was invented. The film is outside of its time. It belongs in the late ‘60s or ‘70s when studios were not afraid of letting filmmakers spend their money on making extremely personal, bat-shit-crazy movies.
Which brings me back to the whole Kubrick thing: While Glazer is most definitely a unique super-talent, the big K’s DNA is definitely imbedded in the man. You are instantly immersed in a strange world by the film’s hypnotizing opening scene. It starts with a black screen and then a little white dot and then the dot evolves into rings, all the while Mica Levi’s music score slowly begins to cast its evil spell and then I don’t know what but I was knee deep in the film and was not sure how I got there. It was a similar feeling to the one I got the first time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. Black screen, the sun, the moon, Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and then, POW! — the dawn of man. For the next two hours I was mesmerized, unable to pay attention to my surroundings – my girlfriend, other people, my pizza – until the film ended.
The movie feels cold. The acting is, like it is in Birth, very detached, which works to the film’s advantage since we are experiencing earth from the perspective of a being from another planet (or dimension…who the fuck knows). The camera slowly oozes its way around scenes as confused as the viewer, the dissociative editing disorients and the few lines that are delivered in the film come off as if the speakers themselves have forgotten their purpose.
Back to that score: The music haunts every goddamned second of the movie. At times, not much was happening in the film (the alien driving around, people hanging out at a mall) and yet I felt pure terror to the point that I think I forgot how to swallow because that fucking score was slowly driving me crazy. Mika Levi is to Jonathan Glazer what György Ligeti was to Kubrick.
Oh yeah… Scarlett Johansson. Johansson has never been this good. Glazer disguises her in a dark wig, a call girl-esque outfit and a British accent and proceeds to let her loose. She barely speaks, but she doesn’t have too. She pulls off something that is pretty difficult to do, which is to convey everything through her eyes (she barely even blinks). She seems in a constant state of inquisitiveness as she prowls the streets of Scotland. I bought into the fact that ScarJo was an alien instantly and basically forgot there was acting going on. It is, without a doubt, an iconic performance. Johansson spends a lot of the time naked but it doesn’t come off as exploitative or even all that alluring (the film is too unnerving and creepy for that). Where a film would use an actress’ naked body to attract the gaze of male viewers with the promise of sexy time, this movie quickly sets up the nudity as an infernal Venus flytrap, so no sexy time.
Thus far, Under the Skin is the best film I’ve seen this year and it shall easily make my top three. Like Kubrick, Glazer is not very prolific; he’s only made three films in thirteen years. This is one Kubrickian habit that Glazer will hopefully break. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the b-horror movie Species would have been like if Stanley K had directed it, here’s your chance.
Under the Skin is rated R for nudity, violence and general weirdness.
(All media used are property of Film4 and BFI Studios.)