Like the predatory alien siren of his latest offering, British director Jonathan Glazer is not one to be rushed. It was just short of a decade ago that his previous film, the category-defying Golden Lion nominee Birth (2004), split critical consensus at Venice so comprehensibly. He now returns with Under the Skin (2013), a calculated and concise adaptation of Michel Faber’s science fiction novel of the same name. Peeling away the fat of Faber’s source text to expose its obsidian heart, Glazer has not only single-handedly regalvanised the British sci-fi but has also earned the right to be uttered in the same breath as genre greats such as David Cronenberg and Nicolas Roeg.
As unique selling points go, having Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson (once again playing a ‘black widow’ of sorts) prowling the streets of Glasgow, picking off pseudo-machismo males at her whim represents a particularly strong hand. Without wanting to reveal too much of Under the Skin’s thin slither of a plot, Johansson plays the lead, a stranger from a distant world who sets about ensnaring carefully selected victims for an intentionally vague, though undoubtedly sinister higher purpose. Aided by her leather-clad, motorcycle-riding kin, the being appears to take little to no pleasure in her work, dispatching prey as as one would casually swat a fly. Yet over time, microscopic embers of compassion begin to kindle.
Though Glazer has already been described in some quarters as the “heir to Kubrick”, a more helpful association (if there is such a thing) would be with body horror exponent Cronenberg. Like the Canadian filmmaker, all of Glazer’s features thus far – including his 2000 breakthrough Sexy Beast – have focused on characters uncomfortable in their corporeal confines. From Ray Winstone’s bloated mahogany expat in the aforementioned Costa del Crime drama to Cameron Bright’s (reputed) reincarnated lover in Birth, this most remarkable of working directors has a clear preoccupation with the skin we live in. As its evocative title would suggest, Under the Skin is Glazer’s most diluted effort on this subject to date. Johansson’s apex hunter specialises in removing horny, cocksure Glaswegians from their epidermal shackles, yet finds herself increasingly fascinated by her own alluring visage.
Nine years in the making – having begun life shortly after Sexy Beast was put out to pasture – it’s little surprise that Glazer has managed to pull in some of the industry’s finest creatives for Under the Skin. From DoP Daniel Landin’s transfixing cinematography and alt musician Mica Levi’s deeply disquieting score (the strings alone will haunt your dreams) to Nigel Albermaniche’s meticulous sound mix, this is a stirring collaborative effort engineered to near-perfection. It’s perhaps in the bravura opening sequence, as a floating orb transforms from an eclipsing planet into the black pool of an human iris, that the Kubrick comparisons hold most water. Yet even here, it would be cruel to dismiss such an outstanding and unique piece of cinematic high art as simply the sum of its esteemed influences. Completing an unmissable hat-trick of films, Glazer’s Under the Skin is his otherworldly opus.
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