At its simplest, Under the Skin is a psychological, sci-fi thriller starring Scarlett Johansson. However, Under the Skin is not a simple film. To class this film as either a sci-fi or a thriller would be to give the wrong portrayal of the film. Under the Skin haunts more than it thrills , whilst it never truly scares. The film chills less through the use of plot points but more out of its innovative, minimalist cinematography.
Jonathan Glazer’s cinematic choices are shown in their most haunting form as Johansson, an alien life form living in the form of a human female seductress, stands stoically, without emotion, as she watches a family fight in vain for their lives. The shot is distant, cold, grey and practically silent. The lack of sound adds another layer of despair to the scene and draws out emotion from the viewer, in stark contrast to Johansson’s unmoving stance.
An emptiness of sound is used throughout the film as the sounds of the situation are stripped back and replaced by moments of silence, foreign extraterrestrial noises and haunting metronomes. Combined with the greyness of the Scottish scenery and the deep, black interior designs, the elements that are lacking in Under the Skin make it a cinematic masterpiece.
However, Johansson is the real star of the show. Whether shot through a murky hidden camera or down a wide, crisp exterior shot, Johansson shines. Playing a role with little visible emotion, few reactions and limited dialogue may sound easy but the role Johansson filled would have been intensely difficult. Her ability to keep a scene both tense and gripping with very little other than her lack of emotion to use is a testament to her status as a top female actor. A lesser actor would have failed to achieve such success.
Under the Skin is rated a 15 for its explicit visuals, but Johansson’s nudity is sexualised, then quickly desexualised down to almost anatomical levels. Her lack of clothing in several scenes is handled in a clinical and detached manner, for which Glazer deserves praise. Unlike in Spike Jonze’s Her in which Johansson is marginally too present as an actor, her sexuality does not distract from the film in Under the Skin. Johansson makes you live her changing emotion with every action and non-action and with this performance, has cemented her place as one of the finest female actors currently working.
Glazer’s Under the Skin is not perfect, but it is a damn good attempt at it. It’s story will grip you with its minimalistic dialogue, it’s scenes will haunt you (especially those underwater) and Johansson will hypnotise. Held back by its suitable but uninspiring crescendo, Under the Skin will make you feel things, even if you’re not quite sure what those things are.