It’s a tricky tightrope walk, adapting today’s bestselling novels for the screen. Flimsy chick lit or YA tearjerkers, the bulk of all written matter nowadays come out looking tame, Lifetime-y up there and… well, you’ve watched The Fault in Our Stars too, I imagine. The actors might shine – inducing rave reviews for that alone – but the timeline tips its hat to the book fans, respectfully cutting out the bare minimum only, and the word-for-word dialogue doesn’t jump out any differently than it did on the page.
That’s why, when Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer told The Guardian he “knew that [he] absolutely didn’t want to film the book” I rubbed my hands together in hopeful anticipation – because he “still wanted to make [Michel Faber’s] book a film.” I took that to mean that the eponymous Under the Skin would delve into the book’s substrata – not a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of a book either – and tap into its chilling atmospherics, without however staying too close to the letter of it, unless it benefited his film. That right there is creative genius, and only when artistic license has reached such a level of looseness and guts as to draw inspiration from a muse, not crown it master, can something as unique as Under the Skin come about.
Under the Skin opens on a series of cryptic lights, set to discordant, throbbing electronica, which projects an all-round ominous mood, never ebbing till the end. We know something pretty out there is looming when a raven-haired Scarlett Johansson strips a close to identical-looking yet unresponsive woman – dead but for one trickling tear – of her figure-hugging outfit and puts it on herself. It’s all done with mechanical, brutal swiftness, in a glaringly white non-space that shuts out the din and beams out the echoes of the brand-new alien’s hand-me-down stilettos. Those of us now ready to jump on board the human-alien hybrid conceit will envision the film taking a naturally horrors-filled course to a hunter-becomes-prey climax – but Glazer didn’t spend ten years re-imagining the lead, re-calibrating the viewpoint and whittling down the source material just to churn out another Species.
No – in fact, the film comes to a simmer early on and rarely bothers with meeting our need for all-out boil. Like we’ve come to demand from all movies that prompt heckles at Venice and polarized reviews thereafter, it doesn’t follow any established rules of alien engagement. It banks on a bleak setting (as drab and overcast as it can get in Glasgow), few scattered lines of dialogue, and a leading dish who slyly lures frisky men into her web. Or rather, her gooey sea of dark matter – the exact opposite of her “birth room” – which Laura alone can tread on, while her victim gets swallowed up, as if in quicksand.
The story – and if a string of passing encounters interspersed with street-side foot traffic shot on hidden cameras might be referred to as such it’s thanks to Paul Watts’ excellent editing – has the camera firmly planted on Scarlett, on her scanning eyes as she rides her van around town and, once her quarry hooked, on her snaky curves which she reveals to reel them in. Like a porcelain black widow, the alien form fulfils her task of chatting up strangers and, if they meet the criteria (no one to miss them back home), snapping them up, with professional ease and fine-tuned detachment. Expressionless except for when she’s twisting men around her little finger.
But then, about halfway through her journey, the pitchy leitmotif toasts into an amber diorama, as Laura all but seamlessly switches from scouting out food to scoping out the human race. After giving “birth” to herself anew, enveloped in a vast and milky blanket of fog, we recognize the trope and can only wish her taste of our nasty, brutish and short life be as painless as possible. There is, then, a formula underlying Glazer’s singular madness – one thick with symbols and metaphors that run the gamut from stifling enclosures and the open sea, to self-image and outward appearance, and free will versus programming. What you wouldn’t expect the flick to be, more than a sum of these disjointed, haunting visuals, is harrowing in spite of Johansson’s poker-faced perf – which is also, I assume, what clinched the pro-and-con argument in the flick’s favor.
Less of a chatterbox in this camera-hogging alien role than she was as a disembodied AI in Her, Johansson zips up here as if 2013 were an either-or year for her (it sure was an experimental break with the usual Hollywood fare). Peter Raeburn’s spine-chilling scratchy score that accompanies most of her moves though, was instrumental to the unhurried, rhythmical unfurling of the story. Unsettling right up to the final beat, where it tapers off, muffled by snow, it adds the suspense cues that the real-life feel, which Glazer was adamant the film should exude, doesn’t need, but the indie benefits from on an artistic level. Unsuspecting extras (read, Glaswegians who somehow didn’t bat a starstruck eye as Scarlett walked among them on the street) aside, the quasi-professional actors who turn up in the bit male parts, ripe for the picking along country roads or in noisy nightclubs, sprinkle plenty of Scottish flavor, accent and adlibbing into the mix, reinforcing that same realistic frame.
To stay within that frame might make your skin crawl, but it’s peering underneath that spiky, predatory surface, beyond the undetectable but immersive blend of practical, visual and computer-generated effects, that will unlock the film’s true strength and, ultimately, its warmth. Slow to curdle at first, Under the Skin turns into a massive maelstrom that will obliterate any preconceived notions you might have about the void within. Take the plunge!